Monday, 20 March 2017

Seven Amazing Books only I Can Recall

Instead of reviewing books on the best seller list, or books winning prizes, this time I’m going to look at seven books that have generally been forgotten.

But, I haven’t forgotten them – in most instances, they are still in my bookcase. The memories I have aren’t only of the stories inside the covers, but of the time and place I read the book. Here are my ‘FORGOTTEN SEVEN’, starting with the most recent, and moving back in time.

ONE - The Voyage of the Narwhal

In the spring of 2000, I took three girlfriends on holiday to the Costa Del Azahar…the coast of orange blossom. We stayed in my tiny flat, which overlooked the Spanish Mediterranean. We basked in some early sunshine, ate at seafood restaurants, shopped at the markets for cheeses, wines and soft, Spanish bread, and took long walks along the coastal paths. We talked a lot, too, because we’d all known each other for at least twenty years and it was great to catch up. And I read my airport purchase; The Voyage of the Narwhal, by Andrea Barrett. It seemed a fitting read; the tale of a journey while we too, were away from home. But the Narwhal was grinding through the ice of the North-West Passage, rather than swimming in southern seas. 

It is 1855 and Erasmus Wells, an introspective naturalist, wants to extend his scholarship on this expedition to the Arctic captained by his brother-in-law-to-be, Zechariah Voorhies. Zechariah is nothing like shy Erasmus. He’s an impetuous smart-aleck who hopes to find a legendary ‘open polar sea’ and a missing explorer who disappeared a decade before.

So there’s the early clue – people die when they go to this place. 

The voyage turns colder and sourer, as winter closes over the ship, and things go badly wrong. "I want my NAME on something," Zechariah tells Erasmus. "Something BIG -- is that so hard to understand? I want my name on the map.”. Although this is fiction, it rang horribly true, knowing as we do how explorers have lost their lives on both freezing continents. The waters are hazardous with shifting icebergs, the sled dogs die, and a sailor succumbs to lockjaw. Very soon they are hemmed in by ice on all sides, and the Narwhal spends an entire winter in the arctic with dwindling supplies of food. The crew splits into factions as Zechariah becomes in turns tyrannical and moody.

In the middle of a Spanish holiday, I was swept into this chilling adventure, and can still marvel at Barrett’s psychological insights into her characters and the depths of the philosophy with which she underpins her story. 

Kasuo Ishiguro wrote The Unconsoled between The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. Both these books went down well with the book reading world, but The Unconsoled sank like a stone. Why? I kept asking as I read and reread it. Why aren’t people getting this marvellous book? 
Ishiguro is one of my favourite contemporary writers. (See my review of his latest, The Buried Giant.) His books are imaginative, inventive, strongly crafted and push the boundaries to the very edges. The Unconsoled is my favourite of  all his novels. 

It's a slippy book, disorientated in time and space and drenched in music. Unlike the subsequent Never Let Me Go,  now a film, The Unconsoled  dropped out of sight like the anchor on the Narwhal, after receiving universally bad reviews at the time of its publication. The Telegraph review said it was a sprawling, almost indecipherable 500-page work and the Guardian said it left readers and reviewers baffled.  One literary critic said that the novel had invented its own category of badness. Meanwhile, I was reading it with intense absorption and enjoyment. But I'm glad to say that by 2005 literary critics were beginning to agree with me...they voted the novel as the third best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel from 1980 to 2005, and The Sunday Times placed it in 20th century's 50 most enjoyable books, later published as Pure Pleasure; A Guide to the 20th Century's Most Enjoyable Books. 

The Unconsoled is set over three days in the life of concert pianist Ryder, who has come to an unnamed European city to perform. His memory seems patchy and selective and he drifts from situation to situation as if in a surreal dream, unable to totally understand what is going on. 

One scene in the book has never left me; Ryder is in his hotel room when he notices that the rug is similar to the one he played soldiers on when a child. Suddenly, he realizes that the room is actually his old bedroom; he's back in his childhood. What follows is a tender, almost cherishing memory of better times. In 1995, I’d recently been nursing my mother, who'd died of the advanced stages of a particularly psychotic form of Alzheimer's disease, and Ryder's problems and experiences reminded me of the twilight world she'd lived in, where real life probably invaded her dream world in unpleasant ways...she was happiest when imagining I was her sister, Beatrice, and that we were both in our twenties and living together before Mum married my father (Beatrice never married – in fact she came to live with the newly-weds!) Listening to Mum's mad conversations with herself gave me a wonderful insight into what life was like before the second world war (my mum was quite old when I was born). 

I would recommend Ishiguro to anyone who hasn't yet read him...all his books. But The Unconsoled has a special place in my heart and will never leave my get your own copy!

Talking of the surreal, I was listening to A Good Read, the longstanding programme on reading and books on BBC Radio Four, when I first heard about The Hearing Trumpet. “This is a bonkers book,” said one of the programme’s guests, who’d been asked to read it. “It’s mad. Utterly bats in the belfry.”
I rushed to Amazon and ordered a second-hand copy. I had to find out if he was right. 
Written in the early 1960s, but only published in 1974, The Hearing Trumpet is Leonora Carrington’s best loved book. Carrington was born in Lancashire to a strict Catholic family, and began to paint when she first came into contact with surrealism through her lover, painter Max Ernst. (See the cover illustration, left.) Her stories are as surrealist as her paintings; she writes with originality, imagination and charm. The Hearing Trumpet  is a classic of fantastic literature, reminding me of a childhood favourite, Alice in Wonderland, but rather than falling down a rabbit hole, we view the world through ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby’s ornate hearing device. Marian’s family commit her to a sinister retirement home, with buildings shaped like igloos and birthday cakes. The occupants have to endure the twisted religious sermons of the proprietor while they eat their weird meals overlooked by a portrait of a leering Abbess. When Marian happens upon a book detailing the life of the Abbess, the pace hots-up remarkably, into a magical adventure of escape. The guest on A Good Read was perfectly right. This book is bonkers. But such fun to read!

I still have my battered copy of Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, possibly the most important novel to come out of South Africa before it abolished apartheid. It was published in 1948 the US; in South Africa it created much controversy. When I opened it again to write this, the smell of old books came wafting out, taking me back to the seventies, when I bought it at a second-hand stall. At that time, South Africa apartheid was still universal, with vicious race laws. Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robin Island and, here in the UK, I wanted to find something that would explain all of this to me. Cry, the Beloved Country, with its major theme of the overwhelming problem of racial inequality, suited my needs. It’s still an incredible read, and a reminder of how important it is not to turn back the clock.

One rainy afternoon, I watched the 1945 black and white film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, on the TV. I was a young mum at the time, and was drawn to the story of this impoverished but aspirational second-generation Irish-American living in Brooklyn, New York City, during the first two decades of the 20th century. So I did what eleven year old Francie Nolan did all the time; visit my local library to borrow the book. Written in 1943 by Betty Smith, the book was an immense success at the time. It must have hit the same nerve with that reading public as the film, and subsequently the novel, did with me. It’s the story of family life, and the immigrant experience. The Nolans are poor, often hungry, but they fill their home with warmth and love. The main metaphor of the book is the Chinese ‘Tree of Heaven’, which grows outside the window of the family’s run-down tenement building; a symbol of Francie’s desire for a good education, which she manages to obtain through some subterfuge with the US school system. This beautifully written account of the American immigrant experience might be due for a revival, for various reasons, right at this moment. 
Vita Sackville-West was a successful and prolific novelist and poet, but I actually know her best as the person who created the wonderful garden at Sissinghurst and as the inspiration for Orlando by Virginia Wolfe, written while they had a decade-long affair.
My copy of All Passion Spent arrived through the post in the form of a Virago Classic Triple bill. I had no idea where it came from, but I was truly grateful and delved into the three novels by three women, loving this one the most. I hung onto the book for years, but recently took it to discuss at my book club and gave it away so that others could enjoy it.

All Passion Spent came out in 1933 and focuses on some of Sackville-West’s primary concerns. She, like Wolfe, was passionate about people’s place in society, society’s constrictions on people, and women’s control of their lives. The story follows the elderly Lady Slane’s thoughts on her life’s influences and controls, happiness and relationships, while she relaxes in the summer sun. She believes, as her life is approaching its end, that she should downsize, and by the time we reach the final third of this short novel, summer is over and Lady Slane has settled into a tiny cottage She’s hoping to be almost forgotten, allowed to get on with being old, but she finds she’s still too linked to her past. She bumps into Mr FitzGeorge who has arrived from India and has secretly been in love with her since their youth. After his death, he bequeaths his outstanding art collection to Lady Slane and she passes it all to the state, much to her rather unlikable children’s disgust.  This empowers her great-granddaughter Deborah,  who finds the courage to break-off her engagement and pursue her love of music. Lady Slane observes this with pleasure, for Deborah will be taking the path that Lady Slane herself longed to, but could not. The novel is not a great classic, but it is interesting and entertaining, and worth a read.

I don’t know if Vita Sackville-West ever read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, but I’m betting she might have. It is the first novel to be written by a working class person, so especially loved by the socialist left in the UK, but mostly forgotten by everyone else. Robert Tressell, whose real name was Robert Noonan, was a housepainter in the early years of the last century, and a member of the Socialist Democratic Association, an early version of the Labour Party. When Noonan died in 1911, he left his 250,000 word novel in the hands of his daughter. who sold it for £25. In 1914, the book came out as a 150,000 word first edition, and in 1918, after the 1st WW was over, it was slashed again, to 100,000 words (the length of the books in the Shaman Mystery Series!) and sold at one shilling. But an uncut version is available, if you’d like to take a look. 
Image from the 2010 London dramatization
To quote Wikipedia, Noonan’s story is…based on his own experiences of poverty, exploitation, and his terror that he and his daughter Kathleen — whom he was raising alone — would be consigned to the workhouse became ill, Noonan embarked on a detailed and scathing analysis of the relationship between working-class people and their employers.  The "philanthropists" of the title are the workers who, in Noonan's view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their bosses. House decorator Frank Owen understands just how the middle and upper classes take advantage of his skills; he sees them as being ‘given away’ in the ‘great money trick’. 

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, as it’s an explicitly political work, but I loved it. The characters Tressell draws feel authentic and compassionate. I especially remember Owen’s little son, who swears by the efficacy of breakfast porridge, thus prophesying our own interest in the health-given benefits of oats today.

Perhaps you have read some of these long-forgotten books yourselves and loved them as much as I did, or maybe you hated them with equal passion.

If so, do tell Kitchen Table Writers by leaving a comment below.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Off the Peg? Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

If you’ve been thinking of dashing off a thriller in the hope of great success in the book market, then I would have been the first person to stop you. “Never jump on a bandwagon”, I’d have said, along with, “ignore books like Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel. You can’t ‘dash off’ great writing.  But Ottessa Moshfegh ignored such sane suggestions and went right ahead and wrote Aileen, one of the best Mann-Booker short-listed novels I’ve read in a long time. 

After writing with a novella and beginning a debut collection of short stories, she decided not to “wait 30 years to be discovered” and came clean about her writing methods In a recent interview. “I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined… I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is.” 

Having worked through Watt’s advice, she wrote for 60 days to produce an ‘off the peg’ novel. But Moshfegh is too good an author to churn our rubbish. “It turned into a work of its own”, she explains.

Soon as I opened Eileen, I was hooked on the wonderful voice created in this disturbingly dark novel. The narrator is old, reminiscing the past. It’s 1964 and Aileen, at twenty-six, is already on the shelf. She works as a clerk in Moorhead, a penal institution for young men, where she's in lust with Randy, one of the guards; off duty she stalks him, knowing full well he’d never look at her and convinced she would never agree to have sex with him anyway…her first time “would be by force”.
Aileen's self-loathing forbids her to wash regulaly. She dresses in her dead mother’s old clothes and eats frugally, believing herself to be fat and ugly inside and out, purging her system with laxatives. She joins her drunken father each night in drowning out the cruel world. But secretly, she’s saving her father’s pension and dreams of escape.

Moshfegh knows precisely what an unlikable character she’s created. In Vice Magazine she said; “My writing lets people scrape up against their own depravity, but at the same time it’s very refined … It’s like seeing Kate Moss take a shit.” To a degree she seems to be writing from experience; in the past she’s had both drink and eating problems.

The story is told through the device of the interior monologue, or if you prefer, the “retrospective first-person”. The sensation of reading is that of a half-whispered story over a cup of tea…the need to tell someone the secrets of your past, before you die. Reading the first half of the novel as my train pummelled over the Pennine way (and the second half as it roared back to West Wales), it was if Eileen reached one of her thin wrists out from the pages and dragged me into the last week of her life before she left her small town and escaped to New York. 

Eileen sees the world from a bleak perspective which has a constant edge of humour. In the packed carriage of my train, I experienced those embarrassing moments – laughing out aloud – time and again. Eileen is a very funny novel. The black irony kept me gripped as much as the promise that her drear life was leading to dreadful violence.

Right from the start, I knew Eileen was not going to come out of this journey as the innocent victim. “This is not a love story”, Aileen says. “I was not a lesbian”, and, “I didn’t eat good food until my second husband”  In a delicious nod to Chekhov’s foreshadowing device; “Before I go on describing the events of that Saturday, I should mention the gun.” She hints that there will be terror and bloodshed, and I believed her implicitly because these are her memories, and her urge to confess is palpable.

The festive season is steadily approaching; the contents page tells us that it will all over by Christmas Eve, but the sad festivities are subverted wonderfully by Eileen’s repressively dark mind. It’s her job to decorate the institution’s Christmas tree, while at home, there is not a bauble to be seen, just a dead mouse in her glove compartment.

At this point, Rebecca, a stunning, red-headed graduate, comes to work at Moorhead. Eileen is swept up into a kind of obsession when Rebecca shows an interest in her. Both girls are drawn to an inmate, Polk, who has killed his policeman father. Eileen watches Polk masterbate while in solitary confinement, but Rebecca has access to his notes and, in her role as the new psychologist, believes she can penetrate the young man’s mind to find the truth about him, a decision that is the catalyst to action.

So, if you’re about to start a novel using Watt’s 90 day, or any other formulaic method, do read this book first, checking it out against the standard tips, like Joanna Penn’s: Grab the reader by the throat, have a crime, don’t write likeable characters, have an ending that slaps you in the face. Huge ticks with these. Or my own tip: rock the boat half-way through, as Moshfegh does with her Rebecca character. 

This is a psychological thriller, and that’s given Moshfegh good sales, a popular following and some great reviews – Anthony Cummins in the Telegraph was left “dumbstruck by her sly, almost wicked storytelling genius”. But she also has her critics. Lydia Kiesling in her Guardian review thought that; “there is something about this novel that, like its heroine, is not quite right…The prose clunks; Eileen is a little too in love with her own awfulness.” Yes, I noted that failing too, early in the text. Things like, I was very unhappy and angry all the time. Moshfegh has fallen into the trap of ‘telling not showing’. But it’s a very little slip, the sort we all make at some point when writing hundreds of pages of story. Mostly, the book is all ‘show', a vivid picture of 60’s USA, of the edges of society, of mental health, and of how easy it is to lose one’s own integrity, or have it stolen away.

Eileen might be thought of as an unreliable narrator, but I found nothing but the truth in the heated depths of the text. I believed in her completely. She may be flawed, but she felt like an intensely real, if bleak, creation. In that, I seem to agree with Moshfegh; “Eileen is not perverse. I think she’s totally normal … I haven’t written a freak character; I’ve written an honest character.”

And honest character who has committed the most awful crime, that is...

Monday, 6 March 2017

Goodreads Short Story Group

If you're bursting to discuss your favourite short stories, then this new Goodreads discussion group is for you. 

Lovin' Short Fiction looks at what's happening in the short story world right now as well as glancing back at all those classic short stories from all over the world. We talk about reading stories to get the most out of them, and about writing short fiction yourself.

The current Challenge is to ask yourself “What short stories made you?” This fits in with my recent Kitchen Table blogpost, Books are the Things that Make Us.

Anyone who joins can choose books to add to the list and can set up a discussion about short stories.

Discussions going right this moment include;

Horror stories  Just how horrible can they get?
“My daughter won’t stop crying and screaming in the middle of the night. I visit her grave and ask her to stop, but it doesn’t help.”
"Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion." He was correct and his words have become a rallying cry for the modern horror writer." author Douglas Winter.
 “You get home, tired after a long day’s work and ready for a relaxing night alone. You reach for the light switch, but another hand is already there.”

Alice Munroe's free to read stories

Alice Munroe. It’s not easy to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for writing short stories, but Munroe has done it.

Why is this little book black? A look at the short stories of the writer of Possession.

Out in 2017  A rundown of current fiction, which includes Tessa Hadley's next book of short stories, Bad Dreams.

Autobiography in Short Stories;  If you've ever written a story, you might agree with Raymond Carver that "A little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.” Ernest Hemingway is anther writer to stick broadly to his life's experiences in his fiction.Do you love or hate stories that are clearly autobiographical?

Multi-genre Short Stories  - which collections ignite the best spice of life by having a load of different stories to chose from? One way of gettering lots of genres under one cover is to publish the prize-winners of a competition. 
Another is by having a collection of 
Themed short fiction - Unchained celebrates the long history of the Bristol library and is all about libraries…futuristic, ancient, musty, sexy, ghostly, deathly. Meanwhile,  You, Me & a Bit of We uses various point of views to dip into a variety of genres. What are your favourite themed short fiction collections?

How easy it is to write a short story? This self-help group will be continuing to tackle the impossible task or creating a story in very few words.

Take a look at it now by going to Lovin' Short Fiction

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Amahl and the Night Visitors – a storytelling experience

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Alongside my hubby, Jim, I love storytelling, and everything surrounding it… myths and folktales, personal stories, history versus legend, and the idea that, in this age of digital devices, we can still sit, spellbound, when someone opens their mouth and tells a story.

It’s surprising how easy it is in the UK to find storytelling sessions. The very best tour the country, just like rock stars, and we’ll drive a long way, and wade through a lot of mud to be at festivals, such as Beyond the Border, where performers like Daniel Morden, Hugh Lupton, Jan Blake, Eric Madden, Cath Little, and the great Robin Williamson, bewitch us with their tales.

We’ve started to include storytelling in the parties we hold; what better excuse to sit around a firepit or hearth with friends!

So, to get better acquainted with the techniques of storytelling, we joined a weekly workshop run by a professional storyteller. It was an experience – and a challenge. Each Monday, we delved into storytelling in a variety of ways, but we always started up on our feet, working on our breathing and posture, stretching, and moving to sound, singing and chanting to work our voices. When we eventually sat down, we closed our eyes and used visualization to increase what we saw in our mind’s eye. 

We worked in small groups, which was interesting at first, as we didn’t know each other. Then we began to get fond of one another, and the groups became a relaxed sharing of ideas. One week, we each brought a small item that meant a lot to us. We paired off and told its history to our classmate, making notes, because it was our partner’s item we had to use to make a story we could tell to the class. These became fascinating stories, some of them closely representing the original experience, some going off on a fantastical route. We use this sort of ‘exchange’ a lot – not just using artifacts, but also recalling anecdotes in an effort to ‘release’ stories and allow us to feel we have carte blanche over them.

In another class, we learnt about the monomyth…the hero’s journey…and worked together to create our hero and discover why they journeyed from their home to a threatening, unknown place. We worked on landscape, using all sorts of settings to either create new stories or emphasize parts of familiar tales, and learned how to face an audience, how to pace stories, time the telling, and breaking it into sections and working on relating some parts faster or slower than others.

We learned that in storytelling the five senses count for the most; listeners can feel the emotions of the story via experiencing tastes and smells, textures, pain and pleasure and the entire tapestry of sounds as well as describing colours and other visual descriptions. My writing friends will know that I think the five senses are very important in writing fiction, as well, but here they became crucial to help the listener ‘see’ the story.

We also worked on detail another aspect of written stories that, as my students know, I’m always banging on about. Detail in written fiction is the lifeblood of enrichment; in storytelling it has a similar, equally essential quality of slowing the fast pace of a story and engrossing the audience.

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One thing I really enjoyed as a writer, were the ‘storytelling packs’, which  contained random aspects of building a story, such as character names, settings and places, times and dates, and the random symbols often found in tales, such as talking birds and fantastical beasts, deep wells and ladders of maiden's hair, magic swords and foundling babies. I found it amazing, as someone who spends a fair amount of time trying to build plots, just how simple this exercise was, and how easily a story fell into place.

As a writer of short stories, it occurs to me that the storyteller has an advantage over the writer in one important direction; they can gauge the reaction of their audience immediately. They can also employ the benefits of body language, gesture, voice control and can even add atmosphere via sound and light effects. Meanwhile, the writer put out their stories without really knowing what their readership will think of them, and without any further props to help them get their point across. Getting direct feedback from an audience is  hugely scary, but the responses the storyteller wants are very similar to the ones a writer is looking for.

As we started to have the confidence to recreate and then tell stories, we were shown how to use ‘sparklines’, a method of mapping our presentation, and other ways to be able to remember where we were in our story. We began to include sound effects, background music, costumes, masks and props to aid our storytelling – better to get the basics under one’s belt before including such things – too much going on, and the novice storyteller will crash and burn!

The storyteller connects with their audience by evoking emotions from them. And the audience arrives, hoping for that; they’ve chosen the story…or the teller…because they like comic stories or sad stories or spine-chilling tales. But the storyteller will know immediately if they’ve been effective....if the audience doesn’t laugh at the funny bits, or be seen fumbling for tissues during the sad bits or gripping their knees from fear as the tension mounts, the storyteller knows right away that they have failed.

On the other hand, if feet stop shuffling, sweet wrappers stop being crackled and every eye is on the storyteller…that’s success. The story has woven its spell and the listeners are entirely absorbed. Even their breathing slows. 

For the writer, too, engaging a reader from the get-go is so important. Building tension into the reading experience that holds the reader and forces them to turn the page is equally about the five senses, detail, setting, character identification and empathy. Because we’re concerned for the welfare of the protagonist – plucky, perhaps, but vulnerable, or beset with problems or dangers – we’re totally caught up.  It could be said that every protagonist that walks the pages of a novel is on their personal hero’s journey.

Stories in books have several and varied effects on the reader. Endings might leave them with a feeling of satisfaction, or of vague unquiet...the characters might linger in their minds as they move through their life in the days ahead. But it’s harder for the writer to know if this has happened.

I admit, I still find it difficult to truly work out why some of my own stories are loved more than others. I can mostly put my finger on the reason when it is other people’s work I’m reading, but I sometimes just get too close to my own. 

That’s why I love it to bits when readers write to me; either via a card which drops through my door, or an unsolicited email that manages to avoid the junk box, or a message on Facebook or this Blogsite. I always try to respond. Quite recently, I heard from a reader of the Shaman Mysteries who lives in Scandinavia. I was dead chuffed about that – they love their ‘noir’ fiction in that cold place.

the book of the opera
At the end of our storytelling workshops, we each had to mount a proper performance. Because the Christmas festivities were upon us, I chose Amahl and the Night Visitors. I remembered this story from my childhood. It was originally a one act opera, first performed in New York on Christmas Eve, 1951. It had a haunting connection with early Christmases for me. Researching it, I found that both the music and the libretto was by Gian Carlo Menottia, who produced a little booklet, revealing how he tried to recapture his own childhood in Italy, where there is no Father Christmas. Instead, as in Spain, they celebrate the Three Kings, who bring gifts, usually at Epiphany. I actually never met the Three Kings—he confesses—it didn't matter how hard my little brother and I tried to keep awake at night to catch a glimpse of the Three Royal Visitors, we would always fall asleep just before they arrived. But I do remember hearing them. I remember the weird cadence of their song in the dark distance; I remember the brittle sound of the camel's hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious tinkling of their silver bridles.

It was a work of love for me, to recreate an opera into a storytelling performance. As I rehearsed, tears often welled up. But blocking and releasing your own emotion is part of the storytelling experience. For my performance, I didn’t use music or props, just gestures and my words. It was quite terrifying (we’d invited a small audience), but exhilarating, too.

 Beyond the Border entices you in.

Finally, comes the applause. Hearty clapping tells the performer that, not only did they wring the right emotions from their audience, but also that the listeners ‘got’ the story; that the denouement, especially, felt right and fit for purpose. Of course, I got my hearty clap…we all heartily clapped each other. But it made me realise one certain thing about storytelling.  Storytellers are very brave people. It is so much easier to put your written story into an attachment and press ‘send’, than stand up in public and weave fictional magic with your own voice.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Sandals with socks? Voice and Style in Writing

Nina Milton is guest-blogging again for the Open College of the Arts. This week she's looking at voice versus style in writing, trying to pull the two apart, and put them together again.

Style…sandals with socks versus Angela Kelly headwear.

Voice…the light that catches someone’s eyes, when they open up about themselves.

Perhaps the Cambridge Dictionary can help. Here’s their definition of style… a way of doing something, especially one that is typical of a person, group of people, place, or period.

Voice, on the other hand, is far more subtle. Even the Cambridge Dictionary admits this, with various definitions, including…important quality or opinion that someone expresses. Your writing voice is your personality…heart, soul…coming through on the page.

To read the rest of the blogpost, go to

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Get the Soundtrack of your Novel in Your Head

“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” 

Walter Pater’s said that. It’s a famous quote of his, more famous than he is. When I first heard it, I checked him out, to find he was a nineteenth-century art critic and literary theorist who was born in the East End of London.

Some think that this quote is bunkum, and that art doesn’t move towards being music, but the idea resonates with me. Why else would Leonard Cohen have moved his writing sideways from prose and poetry to lyrics (oh! the money, maybe…).  Music often enhances reading; I played Bob Marley all the time when I was consumed by A Brief History of Seven Killings 

When I write, I’m always aware that certain scenes make a sort of music in my head. My characters, right from before I had anything published, always listened to music, often (this is possibly why these stories weren't published!) for long, closely-described scenes.

Then I read the critically acclaimed Teddy Wayne, and heard about how he created a ‘soundtrack’ to his most recent novel Loner, an unsettling story of obsessive desire. In his article, Wayne says…A great deal of pop songs are also about romantic obsession and loneliness (often in the same breath), and many ostensible love songs, when you examine the lyrics, are really avowals of stalker-like pursuit or thoughts of the object of desire; the British seem to have a particular fondness for this kind of ballad

Wayne chose ten tracks that informed his portrayal of his protagonist. I’m writing book four of the Shaman Mysteries, Flood Gate, and I'm doing the same thing. My chosen tracks each represent a character, and I’m finding wonderful inspiration from listening to these songs. Follow the links to hear the music.

In order of appearance:

Larry Waish is a small-time poultry farmer who recently lost all his hens in one of the many floods that plague the Somerset Levels. What he’s discovered, is that his neighbour is to blame for his loss, and he’s hopping mad. Larry really loves Country and Western and plays The Eagles Heartache Tonight  a lot, while he’s trying to cope with what happened between him and Jack Spicer at Harper’s Coombe 

Jack Spicer, who’s real name is John, farms 200 acres of Somerset land, as his family has for generations. He's recently lost his daughter, and is helping bring up her daughter, baby Olivia. He knows he's been driven to do wrong, and t’s tormenting him. He's a bit of a classical buff, and listening to the slightly sinister tones of Shostakovich’s first piano concerto helped me build his character. By the end of chapter one, Jack is dead.

Sabbie Dare is a young shamanic practitioner and therapist who knows it is her destiny to be of service to people on the very edge of life. The victims of evil…the perpetrators of it.  Sabbie’s mad about Pet Shop Boys and pagan music which can vary from folksy to rocking, and includes groups like Incubus Sucubus, Dahm the Bard and The Dolmen 

Kelly King was 28 when she threw herself off the Clifton Suspension Bridge. She’d never really recovered from her life in The Willows, a local authority children’s home where Kelly, Sabbie and Debs Hitchings all lived when they were children. Kelly was depressed, directionless, and addicted to chocolate cookies. In her last days, she plugged into the music of her childhood, such as Pink’s There you go.

Debs Hitchings is a beautician who wanders from boyfriend to boyfriend and job to job. Debs turned up at the very end of In the Moors, (Book One) where she cuts Sabbie’s tortured hair, and has a small part in Unraveled Visions. In this book Debs, and the story of her past, takes centre stage. She’s known for cracking out Beyoncés Crazy in Love 
at the top of her voice as her heels skittered across nighttime pavements.

Quentin Lachapelle is a thirty-five year old photographer with a nice studio, a pretty wife, and a flourishing career. He meets Sabbie and Debs at Kelly King's funeral, where he offers to take some glamour shots of Debs, although he finds Sabbie’s dark skin tones and angled face interesting. There is more to Quentin that meets the eye…or the lens of his cameras. Quentin is a Miles Davis fan, of course. 

DI Reynard Buckely. Fans of the Shaman Mysteries will be delighted to hear that and Rey and Sabbie are still an item. In fact, things hot up between them considerably! Rey made his musical preferences clear in In the Moors, so there’s only one group I could play, and that’s the Stones

Fenella Waish is Larry’s sister. Now in her forties, but still living in their childhood home, Fen seeks help from Sabbie for longterm Ornithophobia, her paralysing fear of birds which prevents her going anywhere near Larry’s poultry shed. Fenella loves her laptop, which is her window on the world. Scared to be Lonely might bring tears to her eyes, but she plays it again and again.

Tara Yorkman. Before she died, Kelly was fruitlessly searching for her friend Tara, who lived at The Willows from when she was little. Kelly, in need of someone to care for, always looked out for Tara, until she was a teenager. Then she disappeared. When Kelly’s spirit comes to Sabbie in a dream, she feels indebted to continue the quest for the missing girl. I listen to Taylor Swift and other noughties music to get in touch with Tara.

Victor Doyle is a successful Bristol business man, a builder of local housing. Now 55, he's loaded, charming and still handsome in a chiselled way, although he’s put on a bit of weight. In the community, he’s a well-loved philanthropist, but underneath, the man is pure, unadulterated evil. I think he’d be rivitted by Pretty Women from Sweeny Todd.

If you're writing a novel, or a series of short stories, try finding and playing the soundtrack that perfectly accompanies the story and the characters. It can make a tremendous difference to the outcome.