Monday, 27 March 2017


I’m a pagan, so people often ask me if I ‘do’ magic spells. The answer is – not often. As few as possible, in fact. There’s two main reasons for that. I’m not a discontent sort of person, I tend to be happy with my lot. Okay, an ocean-going yacht might be nice….but honestly, I suspect it would only be another thing to clean. The other reason I don’t do magic is that I believe that once a spell is cast, if the result isn’t as instantaneous as one was hoping, then that magic hasn’t worked. So I avoid doing lots and lots, on a weekly or monthly basis, so that I can heartily prove to myself that when I do some magic, it really has an effect.

I’ve experienced quite a few (definitely a high percentage) of successful spells in my time. The secret always seems to be desire (LOADS of it), strong intent (preparation and concentration are important) and then… pwuffff! allowing the wish to go…out into the ether, the astral, the spaces between particles…wherever you think wishes might go once you release them.

The letting go is last is the most essential part. Hanging onto hopes, desires and dreams doesn’t get you anywhere. In fact, it holds you back. Everyone knows someone who has spent most of their life pining after the thing they always wanted but never got. This makes a person shrivel up. It stops them loving the life that is actually out there for them.

At a druid gathering with my first lap harp
One of the earliest pieces of magic I remember physically compiling and releasing took place about twenty years ago. My friend had been given a beautiful harp,  with a sonorous tone and extraordinary carvings in beautiful wood.  Out of the blue, I found myself looking it over and fervently wishing for a harp like that. I stroked in lovingly, and was allowed to play it, for a few moments. Harps are very forgiving instruments, and instantly it made angelic sounds for me. But I said nothing. I knew that this harp had cost far more than I could ever afford – harps are very expensive.

The following week I was at a Druid Camp. It was high summer and there were tents all over a huge field in the West Country. The first workshop I went to was pretty arbitrary; Making a Mosaic Tile. I had no idea why I’d chosen it; I’m not good with my hands, or able to work with shape and colour with any panache. Quite quickly, among all the art-and-crafty types around me, I felt out of place and rather uncomfortable.

Then I had a flash of inspiration. I wouldn’t worry about art. I’d make a spell. I worked all through the morning, to create a mosaic tile with the picture of a harp. I put my deep yearning for a harp into every bit of ceramic I glued onto the base. 

Perhaps because I wasn’t concentrating on getting an artistic likeness (something I do find hard!) in the picture, it came out okay. It looked like a harp. People commended it. I left the workshop alone, and found a sunlit glade at the edge of the campsite. I lay the tile down and called to the spirits of the place to hear my call. I was asking for my very own harp. Then, I let the desire go…pwufff!

That was Saturday. The following day, the friend with the beatuful new harp turned up at the camp, to give a workshop herself. She pulled me to one side, as we shared a meal in the cafe tent. “Nina, you know I’ve got a new harp, don’t you?” I nodded, trying not to let my eyes show the envy I felt. “Well, it occurred to me – you could have my old lap harp!” She produced it from under a piece of black velvet. 

It wasn’t as glorious as her new, carved harp, but that didn’t matter. It was for me, to make my own music on.

“Jim told you about my mosaic, didn’t he?” I said. But she just looked puzzled. She’d had no idea I’d been doing harp magic. As she’d got ready for the camp, she’d passed the old harp and thought, “I’ll take that with me for Nina.” In my view, that was not a coincidence. My magic, which had materialised out of a strong, sudden yearning, and executed with care and intent all that previous morning, then let go, by dedicating my desire to the spirits of the place, had wafted up out out, until it reached my friend's generously-hearted mind.
Learning to play a harp isn’t easy. You have to hold your fingers in an odd position which I’ve never really mastered. But I could already play the piano a bit, and this was just a naked piano, wasn’t it? I discovered that I was fine, so long as I invented (I hesitate to say ‘composed’), little tunes of my own, often with little songs that half drowned out my early mistakes. And the lap harp was very portable; I could take it into the wild to play on my own or to other druids (druids are very forgiving!)

The following April, my birthday arrived At the druid grove that month I was given my birthday present from my family. It was a harp, carved into the shape of a swan, with a golden chain around her neck. She was already named, Yewberry. I was thrilled that my original magic had such a lasting effect. 

At the book launch for In the Moors
Since then, my connection to magic has mostly been part of other people creating their own magic, to stunning effect. But about six years ago, I an idea came to me, a story about a shamanic practitioner, Sabbie Dare. This book would be a thriller, in which Sabbie discovers that the people who come to her for help include those in deep trouble…people threatened by crime…people caught up in crime…people capable, even, of murder. She soon understands that it is her nature, through her connection with the spirit world, which draws these people to her. And, slowly, she learns that her ancestral past also has that link. i

t felt like a good idea, so I started writing. Once I’d sent a draft to my agent, I created a piece of magic to send it on its way. This, like the ceramic tile, was a physical act, which I hid in a small golden casket (that I found in a charity shop – not really gold, of course!). On that equally magical day when my agent rang to say that I’d been offered a three-book contract, I dismantled the items inside the golden casket. 
The first Shaman Mystery, available from Amazon

That work had been done…all I had to do now was write two more books!

Interested in magic? You can find every spell known (almost) in The Element Encyclopaedia of 500 Spells by Judoka Illes (Element Books). You can read more about British Shamanism in Singing the Soul Back Home by Caitlin Matthews (Connections Book Publishing) and more about the history of druidry in Blood and Mistletoe, by Ronald Hutton. Also try the website for the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids 

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