Persephone Books: Bringing Forgotten Writers Above Ground

Music: Louboutins–Aubrey Logan

There’s a bookshop in London I’ve been dying to visit ever since I found out about it. Persephone Books: the independent publisher that reprints neglected mid-twentieth century books by predominantly female writers. The books are handpicked by a small team, and Persephone Books has a monopoly on most of its published works. With a small store in Bloomsbury and a healthy website, it’s not surprising that it’s surrounded by a loyal community of readers equally passionate about Persephone’s vision.

Thus, after a stretch of concert-filled weekends, I decided to reward myself with a visit. My fiancé and I took the train to London on Friday night, and after a few necessary errands to Whittard’s, Hamley’s, the National Gallery and a much-needed sojourn at the Royal Haymarket to rest our aching feet (in front of the RSC production of Love’s Labour’s Lost), we stopped off at Persephone Books on Lamb’s Conduit Street.

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It didn’t disappoint. A small tasteful shop, with neat piles of grey-jacketed books, and helpful staff reviews—not so much advertising as identifying the subject matter. There were a few familiar names on the spines—Noel Streatfield, Virginia Woolf—but I was resolved not to let any bias overtake me.

I wanted one book: a voice I could connect with, or maybe a conflict that appealed to me. I picked up almost every volume in the room, read a page or two, inspected the patterned endpaper, stroked the smooth pearly dustjacket. The books are incredibly handsome. They’re printed in Germany, I believe, and their appearance, weight, paper quality and print are incredibly pleasing to my bibliophilic little heart. No, no. I wanted one book. Just one.

The upshot of all this was The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding for myself, The Hopkins Manuscript by RC Sheriff for my fiancé, and Consider the Years, a book of verse by Virginia Graham.

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Our day’s purchases.

Graham immediately charmed us with her witty perspective on city life during WWII. Personally, I struggle to find poetry I enjoy; and although Graham herself called it verse rather than poetry, her humour and mastery delighted me. It’s surely destined to become a family favourite.

My fiancé tells me that The Hopkins Manuscript is ‘hilarious’. Having studied Sheriff’s well-known play Journey’s End at school, I’m curious about his prose, and will probably have devoured THM by the time I get round to writing another blog post.

The Blank Wall is No. 42 in the Persephone collection. The endpaper is copied from a period furnishing fabric, and the book comes with a matching bookmark. Interestingly, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was hailed as great by Raymond Chandler, one of the ‘big four’ American suspense writers of the time. Yet although The Blank Wall has been adapted into two films, the book itself remained obsolete until Persephone Books republished it in 2003. My taste in literature is somewhat domestic, so it suited me to find a thriller from the perspective of a 1940s housewife. At first the main character, Lucia, frustrated me with her flustered ways and inner confusion. But her unlikely position as an accidental murder coverer-upper, her humanity, deceit, and capacity for doing the wrong thing with a complete lack of moral guilt, were so refreshing, that as the book progressed, I found myself enjoying her consistent inconsistencies more and more. Moreover, the central relationship of a mother and her daughter, with the father away fighting, will always have my attention. Without giving too much away, I loved The Blank Wall. Would read again.

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~

If you’re thinking of visiting Persephone Books, bear in mind that each and every book is priced at precisely £12.00—an excellent price for their quality, both literary and material. You can even purchase a subscription, whereby the bookshop will send you a book a month for as long as you subscribe—perhaps that would suffice for a Mother’s Day present. Or even, if you’re feeling indulgent, it would adroitly fill your hole of self-education into forgotten female writers of the last century.

A Change in Point-of-View

Music: Judie Tzuke–Blackfurs

Big news: I’ve finished Captain Corelli’s Mandolin!

I’ve learnt so much about Cephalonia, the fiasco of World War Two, and the passage of post-war civilisation. Gated, backward, quirky island culture was portrayed to a T (I should know). The humour was exactly my jam—from the first scene, during which Dr Iannis extracts a fossilised pea from his deaf patient’s ear. The characters were ridiculed without being trivialised, and the prose provoked thought without choking me on philosophy. I loved the recurring gags, such as the doctor’s system of peeing on his herbs in strict rotation.

Louis de Bernières is a master of bathos.

The eponymous character didn’t appear until over a third of the way through—an interesting decision, considering that the blurb gave me the impression of a love triangle. Yet I think it’s a strength of this book, and of many great works of literature. Note that Jane Austen limits even her ficklest characters to one love interest at a time (open to argument). Fact is, Pelagia is one of the greatest women I’ve ever read—she’s strong, honest, clever and unrelenting, admits temptation, admits regret, admits her morality is mostly circumstantial. Oh, yes, de Bernières pays great attention to the circumstantial! He’s not above beginning a chapter with ‘Dr Iannis was in a terrible mood for no reason other than the fact that it was a very hot day’ (or WTTE). It really is true to life.

Dayum, though. It gets dark. So much for a bittersweet, much-belated note of hope at the end: you only have to Google Cephalonia’s history to find out what the climax is plummeting towards.

Really what I want to discuss, though, is narrative perspective.

I often hear writers talking about which POV to use—first person, third, even second, tense. It can be hard to choose. I understand.

So, De Bernières was writing a massive ass hist fic. His solution to the which-perspective problem? ALL OF THEM. Chapter one is close third person on an unqualified, free-thinking Greek doctor. Chapter two is the first person monologue of Benito Mussolini!

There are chapters of letters showing the passage of time, chapters formatted like a dramatic duologue showing the progression of a relationship; it goes on. In the first half of the contents, seven chapters are entitled ‘L’Homosesuale’. It later becomes clear that these chapters are the sections of an Italian soldier’s ‘confession’ of his role in the war. This makes them easy to group and read in order later on, and see how his path crosses with the islanders.

I loved the thought and craft that went into it all—effortlessly, de Bernières sped up his pacing with a constantly surprising POV, incorporating aspects that broadened the story to far more than a mere romance or a tragic war crime. When you’re reading the POV of a goatherd mistaking bombs for fireworks, and an English parachuter for an angel, you know you’re in deft hands!

Now I talk about POV and me (because I’m self-centred like that). Ever since I started writing, it’s been in third person. I call it my ‘natural voice’; that’s where I feel comfortable. For that reason, I may have entertained a snobbish attitude at some point in my past, and for that I now apologise. I’m only just learning what a tool it can be to employ the right perspective. No POV is more valid, more correct or more effective than any other. It’s simply than different systems work for different books, and must be chosen accordingly.

I can’t believe how long it took me to recognise that! My WIP is in first person. It just is. One of my MCs has no physical presence (hard to explain, but it boils down to the word ‘ghost’). As a third person realistic contemporary writer, I’m soooo out my comfort zone it’s not even funny. But I got this. His first person POV feels so right.

Anyway, enough of me.

Check out this post by JA Goodsell, another #PitchWars hopeful, in which she discusses the merits of both first and third person and why it’s so important to think about your choice. 

Speaking of Pitch Wars, I’m so grateful to Brenda Drake and the team for putting together this enormous contest. ❤

I was lucky enough to snag some CPs via #FicFest a few months ago, with whose help I prepared my book for the contest. In submission week I met the Teen Squad (the other underage entrants (oops, that sounded as if PW has an age limit…)), and I’ve read two of their books so far. So. Much. Talent. I just want to squee about how wonderful and supportive this group is, how great it is to spar with GIFs, suss out our male characters’ underwear preferences, blaspheme against dentist appointments. These are real teens with teen worries and teen joys and a seriously good handle of real teen dialogue.

Rant over. It’s cool. I hope I’ll stay in touch with everyone I’ve swapped MSs with over the past three months, because what with my critique group and the #teensquad, I’ve finally found my people.

But hey, always room for more. Do comment your thoughts on de Bernières and/or narrative POV!

A Concerning (read: amoral) Theme in My Reading

Music: Santana—Amore (Sexo)

I was trying to explain why I love Gone With the Wind so much, when it suddenly hit me that half my favourite reads feature truly awful antiheroines empowered by their amorality. Strong statement, I know. It concerns me.

Let’s look at these books, then. I’ve mentioned a couple of them before.gonewiththewind

Scarlett of Gone With the Wind and Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair are the epitomes (if more than one are permissible) of self-interest. But while Scarlett has a few sensitivities (notably her unrequited crush for Ashley) that make her an interesting character to invest in, Becky is so utterly unredeemable that it must be a conscious decision on Thackeray’s part. Her biggest crime, beyond unvalidated lies and manipulations, is her neglect of her son. The fact that she continues to be fascinating is a testament to great writing—or perhaps she satisfies the guilty, erotic side of readers’ greed.

A recent favourite was Gone Girl. The unforeseeable twists, the utter divided feeling on both Amy and Nick throughout the narrative, ending with a simultaneous hatred of Amy even while you can’t help but marvel at her sheer genius. It’s just a massive ‘eff you’ to happy endings.

An old favourite dates back to my school story collection. For some years my favourite was Winifred Norling’s The Worst Fifth on Record of 1961, which documents an epidemic of illicit smoking, make-up-wearing and boy-dancing at a conservative boarding school. It transpired that the character, Philippa, who’d been dragged into the affair, was nice, but at any rate some of her contemporaries were awful people. Maybe that book was a guilty pleasure, too, a fresh read compared to many of the admittedly priggish depictions of adolescence on my shelf.

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I must mention The Book of Lies, which is set on my own home island. Catherine admits on page one that she pushed her best friend off a cliff, and that she’s amazed she got away with it. The horribleness of the friend, who mentored Catherine in her own image, later goes to explain the action. The second clause is just a delicious admission that she was willing to destroy herself in order to destroy someone else. Immediately, she seems a very human character.

To me, anyway. Others might argue she is sub-human. The thread running through all these books is the amorality of the protagonists. I recently read Francoise Sagan’s A Certain Smile and Bonjour Tristesse and their amoral undercurrent was really quite singular. It was presented in so many ways: as a path to happiness, or at least contentment, as enabling to create adventures and experiences beyond those of the morally conscious—but in the end the character’s apathy fails and leads to her suffering.

These explorations, so often conflicting, are what I love most: ambivalence, self-contradiction and plain confused dismissal of societal morals. These characters don’t reject morality over a lifetime of thought and argument; they simply don’t connect with it. Just as sometimes I struggle to filter what I say, and will more often keep quiet for fear of being unwittingly rude.

That is human, is it not? It is my peculiar interpretation of what it is to be human, at any rate—as I assume I am, if anybody is.

In any case, it explains why I have such a penchant for writing saboteurs, even self-saboteurs. Drina: deliberately destroys her own life to impress her mother, that ultimately fails due to the disillusionment caused by her obsession. Flavie: deliberately destroys her bread-baking family business to ‘feed’ her self-destructive eating disorder (inappropriate verb, I know). My latest protagonist, Dani: deliberately destroys her own social skills to justify her inability to bring her unrequited crush into fruition. It’s a sick list.

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Dani reminds me of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, in that she is so unpredictable when it comes to activity and passivity—he worships the elusive Jane, but throughout the story is divided between fantasy and action. It’s a page-turning combination. Then there’s Scarlett’s book-long unrequited crush, that acute combination of pain and hope most of us recognise from some point in our youth (says me, at eighteen).

Dani takes me right back to that awkward fourteen-year-old stage. In a comforting, nostalgic way, as well as an embarrassing one. I’m revisiting my old diaries, and it’s a bit of a slap to the face to realise how little time ago I was stuck in those crazy thought patterns. Dani’s soundtrack, by the way, is the Franz Ferdinand album Tonight. Not my favourite of theirs, but I like the way it reflects the evolution of a house party (I could write a blog post explaining why I imagine it this way…), with a couple of fairly insightful musings on the limitations of the teenage mindset. Dani’s climax takes place at a house party, so this album in the background eternally reminds me what the whole story is accelerating towards.

I digress. Anyone else see disturbing themes in the books you gravitate towards? (I reiterate, all the books above fall into the LOVELOVELOVEKEEPFOREVERTHISBOOKISMYLIFETHISBOOKWASWRITTENFORME category.)

(anti-)Valentine’s Day Reads

Music: Arcade Fire–My Body is a Cage

Two posts within as many days about BOOKS. I know. Terrible, right? Considering I’m a Lit student and a writer.

Who’d’ve guessed I’d joined the anti-Valentine’s Day parade? My reading repertoire has decided for me, apparently. Frank Sinatra might be blaring out my speakers, but today’s reads defy the mood.

Oh, hello, Basil. Not sure what resemblance my brought thinks I have to John Cleese, though...

Oh, hello, Basil. Not sure what resemblance my brother thinks I have to John Cleese, though…

First up, we have BASIL by Wilkie Collins. The one is my nickname (courtesy of my brother), and the other one of my favourite authors, so I figured I ought to own this book. And read it, because you shouldn’t own books you don’t intend to read (mhm, I may be guilty…I’ve never even flicked through the Oxford Dictionary of Popes). Of course, before I ordered it, I didn’t realise that Basil, the titular character, falls in love with the linen-draper’s daughter at first sight. Ugh, that old trope.

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His and Margaret’s marriage is secret, because Basil’s family are exceedingly class-conscious, and unconsummated, because Margaret is only seventeen. But the night before the pair are due to live with each other, Basil catches Margaret with her forty-year-old tutor!

The book is about the conflict between sexual and romantic needs—and, contrary to so much of literature, this time the woman (um, girl?!) is the unrepentant sexually precocious sinner and the guy the hopeless romantic.

Secondly, I’m reading THE MAID’S TRAGEDY, a play written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher in the early 1600s. My choir (I’ve cut back to one vocal ensemble now) are singing ‘Lay a garland on her hearse’, a madrigal setting of one of the verses in the play, so I thought I’d look it up. We’re not a clean-singing choir, but…to put it plainly, this is an Elizabethan sex tragedy.

The King orders his courtier Amintor to marry Evadne instead of Aspatia, the girl to whom he is betrothed. But the night after the wedding, Amintor discovers that Evadne only married him to conceal that she is the King’s mistress.

What with Aspatia’s father plotting revenge on Amintor, Amintor plotting revenge on the King, and Evadne’s brother prevailing upon everyone else to take their own revenges, there promises to be a veritable mound of bodies onstage in the final scene.

Faithless women (as that Eagles song goes). Okay, I get it. I’ll pretend it isn’t the world’s ‘day of love’ and enjoy my reading.

~

That said, I can always strip people and love from my lecture. See what just arrived in the post? MATHS AND PASTA. Yeah. Someone (an architect called George L Legendre, to be specific) actually wrote a book mathematically classifying about eighty different types of pasta.pastabydesignpastabydesign2

And this is the reading I like best. Because I really really like pasta. 😀

Light reading at the Premier Inn last week, when I competed in the UKMT Senior Team Maths Challenge for the very last time *sadness*

Light reading at the Premier Inn last week, when I competed in the UKMT Senior Team Maths Challenge for the very last time *sadness*

Tag: ‘Ten Books That Changed Me’

Music: Dave Brubeck–Kathy’s Waltz

Five months sounds a grossly long time when it’s your final year of school. Long ‘enough to gain a lot and lose a lot, and go through a lot and end up pretty much where you began (goes without saying that I’ve gleaned vats of maturity and general excellence). All anybody needs to know is that I’m still thinking and breathing and most certainly writing, and do not intend to bury this blog in the near future. So, without further ado,

TEN BOOKS THAT CHANGED ME

Miss Alexandrina Brant nominated me for this tag on Facebook a long time ago… The reason I never fulfilled my tag: I couldn’t make do with a simple list of titles. Per book, one paragraph summarising and one paragraph enthusing? That should suffice…

Category One: School Stories

  • However I might fan over Springdale and the Chalet School, the standalone school stories are a better representation of the appeal of the genre. Just so you know school stories aren’t just squealing schoolgirls’ feuds, their authors weren’t imbeciles, and their readers aren’t blind disciples of utter lameness.

1. THE LEAGUE OF THE SMALLEST by Clare Malloryleagueofthesmallest

The new Games teacher notices the irregularity of the school ‘crocodile’ (the two-abreast line in which the girls assemble for walks) and reorganises it in order of height. So the shortest (also newest, youngest and least adequate) Prefect, Jane, ends up marooned amidst the Juniors, and an idle Middle, Eve ‘Lanky’ Lancaster, leads the entire school to church. Big deal? In a traditional boarding school, Hell, yes!

Height: one of the simplest forms of diversity, and rarely addressed in any depth in the literary world. Mallory explores firstly the impact on an ordered society of, well, empirically reordering it—but the real consequence of the height-organised ‘croc’ is an idea: the idea that short means inferior. Thus, the girls at the end of the crocodile form a solemn alliance to prove the idea wrong. (Also: weird. I could’ve sworn this one was by Angela Brazil…)

2. EVELYN FINDS HERSELF by Josephine Elder

Evelyn and Elizabeth are so close they’re like one person. But the day their invincible partnership on the hockey field is split up, a rift opens between them. The book charts their last four years of school, during which they meet new friends—Elizabeth a powder-nosed hockey player, and Evelyn a fungi-loving teacher—and finally drift back together, but as different people, rather than two halves of one.

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This is a real coming-of-age novel. It’s about friendship and imitation and compatibility, and the awkwardness of growing up and parting ways with old doctrines, but primarily it exults in human variation and finding one’s own niche. Even the extroverted introverts would relate to Evelyn like a kindred spirit.

  • And did I mention neither of these books have antagonists? Another of my literary turn-ons.

Category Two: Fantasy

  • I’ve never written Fantasy, and never really wanted to, but these three have significantly impacted me both on a personal and writerly level.

3. DRAGONSKIN SLIPPERS by Jessica Day George

When Creel’s aunt abandons her outside a dragon’s lair, hoping it’s the least some handsome prince can do to rescue her and all her family from poverty (oh, and the dragon), Creel is set for a long wait. Instead, the dragon in question invites her to choose a single pair of shoes from his hoard, in return for not bothering him again. Soon she’s on the city road in the hope of finding work as a dressmaker, as she always wanted, starting a war between humans and dragons (not as she wanted)—and, of course, getting her prince.

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George is a fabulous children’s author. I can’t read her any more, because I find myself too critical, but SLIPPERS taught me about spunky heroines with unexpected dreams. I don’t know whether it’s the rich, layered (but accessible) world George creates, or the stunning voice, or the undeniable originality of the plot while remaining within the bounds of plausibility. In fact, it may be nothing more complicated than the first paragraph with which I first fell in love: ‘It was my aunt who decided to give me to the dragon. Not that she was evil, or didn’t care for me. It’s just that we were very poor, and she was, as we said in those parts, dumber than two turnips in a rain barrel.’ Tell me it doesn’t have everything.

4. FLY BY NIGHT by Frances Hardinge

flybynightTwelve-year-old Mosca is on the run. She burned down her uncle’s mill, and the word-wielding swindler in the town stocks is her ticket to a better life. But when Mosca discovers that her guide is under bribe to accost the pirate printing press goading the public to rise against the Guilds, she is embroiled in the world of lies and crimes she knows best.

The plot of this book is exceptional, but it’s Hardinge’s style—the imagery, oh, my gosh!—that blows me away. I have never read a book so packed with mind-bogglingly original similes and metaphors, without ever becoming cringy or overly poetic. And the style writes the world, the characters, the tone, and everything else. I can’t praise it enough. Plus, floating coffee-houses…a writer’s dreams on water…

5. GIFTS by Ursula Le Guin

Orrec Castro is supposed to have the gift of undoing like his father. But when he accidentally ‘unmakes’ his own dog, his gift is deemed too dangerous and unpredictable to be left to chance. Orrec’s father blindfolds him for three years so he can learn to control his power. But Orrec doesn’t have the gift of undoing at all—he has the gift of doing, of making…of writing. So who killed Orrec’s dog?giftsleguin

Again, the world-building is incredible. But this is an extremely different world to those in the books above. Le Guin’s Western Shore does not have the fantastical creatures of George’s Feraval, nor the bitter strains of poverty, class jealousy and corruption in Hardinge’s Fractured Realm. The Western Shore is a vast continent made up of a host of different people: it is a fantasy of race and cultural relativism, analogous but for the whisperings of sorcery to the City States of Ancient Greece.

I might as well say, GIFTS is the first in the Western Shore trilogy, and my favourite is really the third one, POWERS. It takes freedom, grief and madness to depths that make me shiver simply in remembrance.

Category Three: Contemporary

  • My choice genre. Wide spectrum, though.

6. CUTTING LOOSE by Carole Lloydcuttingloose

This appeared in my room one day, thin, with a faded cover and brown pages. I picked it up because that’s what I do with books—and had finished it by the end of the day. It’s about a normal girl with a normal life and normal, fairly mediocre problems. It takes place over three days, during which she looks back on the previous week and resents everything in her life. And finally she gets to the end and…lets go. Cuts loose. This book took my angsty teenager-ness and let me breathe.

It implements another of my choice techniques: the anti-climax. And it taught me that it’s totally okay to write about the mundane, as long as you have something interesting to say about the uninteresting.

7. THE BOOK OF LIES by Mary Horlock

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Cathy pushes her ex-best-friend off a cliff, gets her favourite teacher fired and eventually escapes the island in secret. Dual narrative with her uncle, who lived (ahem, subsisted) on the starving and tyrannised island during the Occupation in the 40s.

This book captures everything I hate about the place I live. Mary Horlock went to school with my mum, as a matter of fact—and this book was a huge surprise to me, because I’ve never read anything decent that came out of Guernsey (except Les Mis, if we can claim any credit for that).  It explores all the horrors of living in close proximity with your enemies, the madness of private girls’ schools in the 80s, and the lies that keep a small island from civil war. Microcosmic settings get me so excited.

8. THE GIANT GOLDFISH ROBBERY by Richard Kidd

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Roughly, two boys trying to apprehend the robbery of twenty enormous koi carp end up locked in the van with the carp. A wall of boxes (full of clocks) screens the stolen fish (and boys) from view. Across the journey from Wales to Dover, the boys set eight thousand alarm clocks to go off at the same time, to alert Customs to their predicament.

I was only eight or so, but I have never forgotten ROBBERY. It taught me that wackiness makes for memorability, and it’s for that reason I write whatever extraordinary situations my brain comes up with, and try to live at least one every day; that way, anytime someone asks me how I am, I have an immediate list of unexpected responses.

Category Four: Classics

  • Inevitably.

9. GREEN DOLPHIN COUNTRY by Elizabeth Goudge

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Distracted by the delights of China, William accidentally deserts the Royal Navy. Now with a warrant on his head, he escapes to New Zealand, where he can fund himself a new living, and writes back to Guernsey for his wife-to-be. But out of the two sisters Marguerite and Marianne, who both love him, he can never remember which is which. He writes for Marianne, the sweet, happy golden girl; but doth sail halfway across the world to him the real Marianne, ambitious and fractious. Their marriage is fraught with murdering natives and shattering earthquakes, as well as quarrels, whereas heartbroken Marguerite, stuck on the island, takes up the habit.

Quite apart from the tragic mistake that composes the premise, the unrestrained passages of quiet exalting imagery that infuse the text, and the unexpected tale of fierce survival lurking behind the first few hundred pages of ordered Victorian society, Goudge’s chief feat is Marianne. Marianne is irreconcilably despicable and relatable. She is so, so flawed in her intense, famishing passion. She has all confidence that she can achieve anything she wants…except happiness; and in that respect she has zero self-esteem. No matter she’s two centuries old, she’s the most accurate depiction of a teenage girl I’ve ever read.

10. THE WOMAN IN WHITE by Wilkie Collins

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The instant that drawing master Walter Hartright meets his new student Laura, he sees an uncanny resemblance with the young woman who recently escaped a nearby asylum. When Laura’s new husband falls into financial difficulties, and plots to switch her for the terminally ill Anne and gain Laura’s inheritance, it’s up to Walter to restore Laura’s identity. And there’s someone who’ll burn churches to keep him quiet.

Mystery above mysteries! In legal style, Wilkie Collins writes a succession of narrators in a grand roll of testimonies. Scandal, insanity and arson (and an Italian Count): they’re all there. Apart from the unusual structure and complex plot, Collins’ characters are beautiful. Walter is more willpower than archetypal sleuth, and even Laura, whom one might imagine to be a passive victim, is likeable enough to drive the emotional journey. Every secondary character is distinct; most especially Laura’s half-sister Marian, whose devotion and intelligence are a wonderful testament to Collins’ stance on women in the nineteenth century. Well, the entire book, if it comes to that, declares the disadvantageous position of women, whether clever, married or mad.

  • I dare you to pick one of my ten—any one!—and add it to your reading list.

Post coming soon: music and writing, as part of the TCWT February blog chain. I intend to have a decent crack at keeping this blog up to date, so don’t leave me just yet!

Falling Flat, and Powerfully – Teens Can Write, Too! Blog Chain September 2014

Hi, I’m delighted to be back on the Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain. This month’s prompt is:

“What are your favorite book beginnings and/or endings?”

As a reader, I feel most satisfied with a less-than-satisfactory ending. Don’t call the contradiction police yet! Let me defend myself!

           1. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Now, you’re never going to plough through a 1,449-page tome knowing your destination, so I mustn’t give it away—maybe that’s the thing I love so much about this book. Mitchell takes you on a journey so unpredictable you can’t tell where it’s going to end. I mean, every twenty pages an unforeseen plot-twist grabs your insides and twists them into a colonic knot. And then the culmination of all this is a damn anti-climax!

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The first edition cover.

Some readers would feel betrayed. It’s as if the writer gives up, not only on her intricate plot, but on the readers who’ve religiously followed and felt alongside Scarlett O’Hara. The non-spoiler version: Scarlett’s goal has been changing at the same rate it’s been slipping away.

Spoilers: Throughout the entire book, Scarlett has an immature desire for her childhood friend Ashley. She meets and marries Rhett Butler, the only man who understands her worldliness, though she doesn’t love him as he does her. A thousand pages later, Scarlett realises she loves Rhett after all, and Ashley was never worth her obsession. But by this time Rhett is bored of her pining for Ashley. His last words, spoken so heart-wrenchingly by Clark Gable in the 1939 film: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, are so completely the opposite of what the reader has been willing all along.

I guess that’s it. The characters’ motives are at odds with the will of the reader. We know if they ‘just’ surrender their pride and fall into one another’s arms, everything’ll be okay and they’ll live happily ever after. That’s all anyone wants, right? But they don’t, because sometimes it’s genuinely impossible to retrace your steps through traumatic events like those shrouding Scarlett’s life. Anyway, that discrepancy is what I love. It’s so…human. And so tragic.

On the other hand, I didn’t like the beginning of GWTW. The first hundred and fifty pages were so stuffed with insignificant details, I guessed they had to be foreshadowing (it gave me a kick later when I was right). But the moment the book took off, I was lost.

         2. Cutting Loose by Carole Lloyd

This book changed my attitude to writing. It turned up under my bed—by providential means, I believe—pages browned as if with lentigos, cover blanched from untoward exposure. A Contemporary Bildungsroman set in the nineties(?), it basically tells the story of a girl’s crappy Christmas, alternating between her looking back from December 28th/29th and progressing with the New Year festivities.

It begins with the protagonist, Charlie, resenting the relentless tone of the telephone and the control it has over twenty-first century human beings, and believing herself irreparably changed from her rubbish Christmas. But over the next forty-eight hours, as she reflects on what has changed her, she realises she’s as selfish and hypocritical as ever. It’s a journey through levels of maturity, condensed into a small time-frame to augment the intensity and inconstancy of human perception. Charlie easily convinces you she has nothing left to learn, until the final chapter where she goes back on all her judgements of the past days and…well, takes the advice of her enemy and buys ‘some whacking great earrings’.

When I first read it a year or two ago, it resonated with my own teenage moroseness, insincerity and pretensions to maturity. Now, even though I pay more attention to the way it’s written, the ending still echoes something comfortingly lifelike. I can only describe it as a sigh of resignation.

          3. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Again, classic. Again, anti-climax. Again, Bildungsroman. Next time I read it I have to count the times I expected Holden to get laid…and he didn’t. Not once. I mean, we didn’t even get to meet the girl he periodically mentions (Jane Gallagher). The entire thing is a ball of wool-fluff expectations that amount to nothing. That kind of book ignites my internal fires far more than a high-stakes fight scene.

Again, first edition cover.

Again, first edition cover.

I suppose, by using Holden as an example, I’m also exhibiting something masochistic. The informal, authentic (albeit unreliable) way Salinger writes draws us into Holden’s mind in a faintly disturbing manner: we share his suppressed angst and rampant hormones, his stream-of-consciousness-style evocations, and the seemingly far-fetched connections so true of our own thought processes. Reading Holden is reliving the tragedy of our own special human madnesses, loving and hating them…and now I’m in danger of getting poetic without point, so I’ll leave it there.

As ever, I’m interested to hear your thoughts. But make sure you check out everyone else in the chain, too:

7th – http://vergeofexisting.wordpress.com/

8th – http://zarahoffman.com/

9th – http://thelittleenginethatcouldnt.wordpress.com/

10th – http://www.elizamcfarlish.weebly.com/

11th – http://sammitalk.wordpress.com/

12th – http://irisbloomsblog.wordpress.com/

13th – http://musingsfromnevillesnavel.wordpress.com/

14th – http://fantasiesofapockethuman.blogspot.com/

15th – http://miriamjoywrites.com/

16th – http://magicandwriting.wordpress.com/

17th – http://ttkesley.wordpress.com/

18th – http://www.brookeharrison.com/

19th – http://www.freeasagirlwithwings.wordpress.com/

20th – http://roomble.wordpress.com/

21st – http://unikkelyfe.wordpress.com/

22nd – http://erinkenobi2893.wordpress.com/

23rd – http://butterfliesoftheimagination.wordpress.com/

24th – https://lillianmwoodall.wordpress.com/ – YOU ARE HERE!

and http://www.paperdaydreams.com/

25th – http://write-where-you-are.blogspot.de/

and http://theedfiles.blogspot.com/

26th – http://insideliamsbrain.wordpress.com/

and http://anmksmeanderingmind.wordpress.com/

27th – http://semilegacy.blogspot.com/

and http://dynamicramblings.wordpress.com/

28th – http://oliviarivers.wordpress.com/

and http://randommorbidinsanity.blogspot.com/

29th – http://theloonyteenwriter.wordpress.com/

30th – http://thelonglifeofalifelongfangirl.wordpress.com/

‘SINGULARITY’ Explained

Music: Robert Fripp—New York, New York, New York

(After six weeks of toil I have finally finished exams, so even though schoolwork is mounting again, I have time! Yay!)

WARNING: long post. Can I excuse it on the grounds that Saturday was my blog’s one-year anniversary?

 

Miss Alexandrina asked me the other day whether SINGULARITY, the title under which I entered CAPTAIN’S PAPER/TRUMPING HEARTS/Drina’s story in PitchSlam, is a Shakespeare reference.

Here I attempt to explain the tenuous links which led to that title.

 

  1. Star-Cross’d Lovers (Shakespeare)

I studied Romeo and Juliet at GCSE, so multiple references crept into the first few drafts of Drina’s story. One passage in particular, when I was brainstorming titles last year, came back to me. Romeo meets Mercutio and Benvolio (finally) and they tease him by insinuating that the ‘important business’ that had delayed him was of a sexual nature.

The exact quote (Act II, Scene IV):

ROMEO         Why, then is my pump well-flowered.

MERCUTIO   Sure wit, follow me this jest now till thou hast worn out thy pump, that when the single sole of it is worn, the jest may remain, after the wearing solely singular.

ROMEO         O single-soled jest, solely singular for the singleness.

Note that ‘pump’ is a double entendre, as are the ‘flowers’. Beyond that, Mercutio is saying the joke is poor and no longer amusing. Romeo then invokes the low joke and I like to think he is berating Mercutio not only for the joke but for assuming he was with Rosaline (or any girl, for that matter). In the event, Romeo is planning his wedding to Juliet, has just received a hate note from Tybalt, her cousin, and is keeping his marriage secret from his best friends.

How in the world does this sordid passage relate to Drina, besides her tendency to bandy about words?

"O Garden Clogs!" - yeah, they're so wasted in the daily trip to the compost heap and back

“O Garden Clogs!” – yeah, they’re so wasted in the daily trip to the compost heap and back

First the play. Garden Clogs are one of my motifs (‘pumps’). In Drina’s very first scene they are broke-soled, but it is implied that the antagonist will salvage them. Later they reappear as a threat (pretty much a hate note), and as an icon of corrupted richness, with sexual connotations.

Like Romeo, Drina engages herself to someone she’s only recently met, and conceals it for fear of the repercussions. A major plot-point is her crushed, inebriated deal with her fiancé’s brother, and the speculation surrounding it. Assumptions being one of the two major themes, joking over something so untrue—yet, notice, undenied by Romeo—seems apt.

Regarding other Drina-Romeo parallels, Act II, Scene II is the famous balcony scene, in which Romeo begins to mature from the antisocial, melancholy Rosaline-lover. Similarly, Drina begins to mature after meeting Chas—realising the Captaincy isn’t the glory everyone made it out to be, foreshadowing how many times it will betray her over the coming months. Chas, like Juliet, is the more mature member of the pair—though Drina, like Romeo, likes at least to feel that she’s the dominant.

A young DiCaprio opposite Claire Danes in the 1996 Baz Luhrmann adaptation.

A young DiCaprio opposite Claire Danes in the 1996 Baz Luhrmann adaptation.

Drina and Chas’s families are old friends; not feuding factions. However, with Chas’s mother’s dementia and Drina’s mother’s problems (I’m beginning to think PTSD), there’ll never be a good time for the young ones to prioritise elsewhere.

Then there’s the famous line about a rose of any other name still having the essence of a rose. This exemplifies Drina’s dilemma: she feels inextricably bound to her mother’s history and fate, which I believe come under ‘name’. The definition of a Montague is one who fights with Capulet, and that of Capulet fights with Montague. Juliet denies that the ‘children’s teeth be set on edge because their fathers have eaten sour grapes (Jeremiah), opening up the debate that our forefathers are not responsible for our actions as we are not responsible for theirs—we have no obligation to repeat our ancestors’ successes (or failures). ‘Independent’ Drina likes this idea, but struggles to free herself of liability to her mother’s state; like many children in such home environments, she half-believes the instability is her fault, whether directly or indirectly.

Anyway, the cyclic nature of generation: good or bad? #2 suggests another approach thereto.

 

2.   The Singularity of Life (Shakespeare)

Is it not the singularity of life that terrifies us? Is not the decisive difference between comedy and tragedy that tragedy denies us another chance? Shakespeare over and over demonstrates life’s singularity — the irrevocability of our decisions, hasty and even mad though they be. How solemn and huge and deeply pathetic our life does loom in its once-and doneness, how inexorably linear, even though our rotating, revolving planet offers us the cycles of the day and of the year to suggest that existence is intrinsically cyclical, a playful spin, and that there will always be, tomorrow morning or the next, another chance.” ― John Updike, Self-Consciousness

What can I add? Tragedy and comedy are two fundamental layers of this life—intermixing the two is allegedly a ‘British’ habit. That’s one of the things Shakespeare does best: in King Lear, one daughter refusing to admit her father’s ego leads to half a dozen bodies on the floor. I hesitate to use the word ‘comedic’, but there is something acutely disturbing about the boundary between life and death: it is not nearly so solid and straight as we like to think. Perhaps amusement is my coping mechanism when it comes to such realisations.

Drina’s demise begins with her best friend insinuating that perhaps she’s just as arrogant as gossip tells. From there, an arrogance complex develops into distrust and withdrawal, prompting Drina into a series of progressively less wise decisions. One parallel relates her mother’s similar fall from glory—through an accident, it is worth saying, coupled with her inability to accept the singularity of life—though in fact it is Drina who gets the second chance; there’s something satisfyingly sacrificial about the climax, if I say so myself.

Anyway, unlike a Shakespearian tragedy, Drina gets another chance, flinging away the ‘solely singular’ Garden Clogs. There’s a reason it begins with Chopin and ends with Mendelssohn.

 

3.   Infinite Compression to Infinitesimal Volume

In terms of physics, the idea of an infinitely dense, infinitely voluminous point excites me. Lots of people believe black holes are some kind of portal to oblivion. A singularity is a point; sometimes it’s described as a ring. Get this: gravity deforms space-time to prevent ANYTHING from escaping. (Also, singular matrix in mathematics is an arrangement of terms with no inverse. That basically means it’s difficult to manipulate.) Contrary to #2, this singularity is infinite.

so beautiful

so beautiful

Drina is fundamentally self-interested, so you could be forgiven for thinking Drina is the singularity, the dense point at the centre of everything—gosh, Drina herself thinks so! She believes her success will attract her mother’s love.

Midway the set-up is flipped. Realising she’s just another galactic object, Drina alters her trajectory to accelerate her travel towards the black hole that is her mother’s ruination.

Warping space-time

Warping space-time

There’s something so cool about an inevitable path of fate, and a horizon only crossed in one direction. So, singularities warp space-time and quantities become physically infinite, they are weighty, powerful and at the pinnacle of destructive efficiency; ambitious physicist Drina, in the race for power, would definitely aspire such qualities—and definitely fall short of her aspirations.

 

 

4.   Individuality versus Community

A singular is a distinguishing quality or a peculiarity. Drina’s is that she has the capacity to become School Captain, and nobody else has that. In fact, that’s all she has that can possibly win her mother’s affections. But it also ignites the conflict between individuality and community, which composes the second major theme—not just in terms of whether to please oneself or those for whom one has responsibility, or grappling with standing out from the mob (or not!), but reliance on a significant other.

Drina’s self-esteem is dependent upon fulfilling her mother’s aspirations. The first act charts the drift and unvoiced betrayal of Drina and her best friend. While fearful of placing her welfare in the hands of another, whom she cannot control, Drina gradually surrenders to romantic love. Everyone might fancy her superwoman (including herself, at the beginning), but by the end she realises she can’t survive without other people—her power is not intrinsic, but channelled through those with whom she associates.

 

5.   Singularity and Suffering (Austen)

Singularity often makes the worst part of our suffering, as it always does of our conduct.’—Persuasion, Jane Austen. So that is our crudeness, single-mindedness, egotism, independence, vanity, conceit, ambition, obstinacy and power, our cyclic, infinite perception of life, both our overestimation and underestimation of our own significance. Maybe she’s even talking about singleness; her very voice seems to exalt the kind of community Immanuel Kant called the ‘Kingdom of Ends’ (I can’t think of another way to describe it). Austen ridicules society and abhors human selfishness, but there’s something undeniably unifying about reading her work.

You can almost breathe this guy's ego. (Oh, it's Anthony Head as Sir Walter Elliot, to whom the Persuasion quote applies.)

You can almost breathe this guy’s ego.
(Oh, it’s Anthony Head as Sir Walter Elliot, to whom the Persuasion quote applies.)

Anyhow, I like to think Austen’s equating singularity to suffering, and blaming both upon our conduct, but there are many many interpretations.

 

BONUS: ‘trick of singularity’, the Twelfth Night quote Alex was thinking of originally, is equally pertinent; when I first plotted the story, back in 2011, the tenor-changing plot-points matched the thirteen tricks of a bridge hand, and one of them I named ‘singularity’ (as discussed in #4). Sparknotes tells me ‘singularity’ in this quote means ‘free and independent’.

Hey. THE TRICK OF SINGULARITY. That might even work…

 

I may just have written an analysis of my own novel’s alternative title, and for that I very genuinely apologise! To make up for it, I’ve written another post for today. I promise it’s short!

 

 

 

Positively Austen

Music: REM – Accelerate

This past week my electricity has been on and off. An army of emergency roadwork-men and their torture instruments have rendered my bedroom (at the front of the house with poorly-fitted windows) a place of misery and headaches. And I’ve lost so many documents halfway through the creation, between power surges, bah.

This afternoon the electricity has, however, steadied itself, so I’ve caught up on a few things.

So have I used my internet-deprived time wisely? Well, I read Emma (1815). And P&P has been supplanted from its post of L’s Favourite Austen.

Firstly, a quick summary.

Twenty-one-year-old Emma Woodhouse, rich, clever and beautiful, is Highbury’s most successful matchmaker…whose conspiracies accidentally ruin the prospects of all those round her, and eventually her own.

2009 BBC serial adaptation starring Romola Garai - "Oohoo, my evil matchmaking plot is going to plan!"

2009 BBC serial adaptation starring Romola Garai – “Oohoo, my evil matchmaking plot is going to plan!”

The long version:

  • Harriet Smith falls in love three times in a single year;
  • pompous vicar Mr Elton and his vulgar wife cannot find anything to say that could possibly entertain Miss Woodhouse;
  • old Mr Woodhouse remarks upon the wholesome nature of gruel;
  • Mr John Knightley disdains all that threatens his independence;
  • Mrs Isabella Knightley talks of Dr Wingfield, and her father Mr Woodhouse of Dr Perry;
  • Perry’s children steal the cake;
  • Mr Weston is too hospitable, and his wife too commending of Emma;
  • Emma flirts with Frank;
  • Frank gives Miss Fairfax five alphabet blocks spelling a name of some embarrassment;
  • Miss Fairfax remains ‘reserved’,
  • though her aunt Miss Bates expounds [at great, great length] upon her virtues every Wednesday;
  • Emma insults Miss Bates;
  • Mr Knightley scolds Emma;
  • and Emma finally realises that if anyone marries Mr Knightley, then it must be herself—Mr Knightley, her lifelong friend, confidante, the only one to point out her faults, whom she has taken for granted all her life, who has loved her eight years, but never kissed her hand.
2009 BBC serial adaptation starring Romola Garai - excursion to Box Hill

excursion to Box Hill, with all the main cast

Some are quick to note that Emma Woodhouse is an anomaly amongst Austen’s other heroines. Her financial circumstances are already advantageous, and she does not mean to marry. Though she promotes matches, and advocates the feelings of all her acquaintances, she does not know her own!

Emma and the exciting Frank Churchill

Emma and the exciting Frank Churchill

Nevertheless, in my opinion Emma is Austen at her most romantic. Not because Emma calls herself a matchmaker, but because the novel is her journey to discovering that she is in love, and he has been waiting for her all that time. In the ups and downs of their relationship, he is always right, and she wrong. His influence over her is the most beautiful thing—for he is the only one whose candid opinion Emma admits, however unpleasant. They know one another so well they’ll fit easily into conjugal routine—whereas even Lizzy and Darcy have only known one another a year.

C'mon, I couldn't leave this out.

C’mon, I couldn’t leave this out.

P&P is the ultimate happily-ever-after love story, and Darcy the ‘babe’ of ‘babes’ (due in some part, I confess, to Colin Firth in a wet shirt).

Personally I don’t feel that Elizabeth suffers enough. Her pride is wounded, eventually her love—but her interminable wit is her buoy in a roiling sea. Emma’s active presumption carves her misfortunes; she deals with guilt. Elizabeth is surrounded by people who have far more to regret than she! Emma is an anti-heroine (as, in effect, most of us are), but Knightley’s devotion is oddly more justified than any of Austen’s other heroes’–why, in the last pages of Northanger Abbey it’s admitted that Henry Tilney loves Catherine Morland out of gratitude! What if that were a universal rule?

"Abominable flirting! I want to dance with Emma!"

“Abominable flirting! I want to dance with Emma!”

P&P wouldn’t even rival Emma were it not more tightly written (80k as opposed to 120k), and lacking the incontestable Miss Bates and Mr Woodhouse (I feel like screaming every time he mentions his gruel. No censure of John Knightley for voicing his frustration).

Persuasion is another rival of the time-assured P&P. It is Austen’s latest, and her characters comparatively ‘aged’ (Catherine is fifteen, roughly half the age of Anne Elliot). When I said that Elizabeth has not suffered enough, she has not half the suffering of poor Anne. ANNE IS STILL IN LOVE WITH CAPTAIN WENTWORTH, eight years after she rejected him. But she is gracious enough to suppress it, for his sake. The world needs more books about rejection. (Plus it’s so cool to think rejection is the only power women of that era had. Hence tragic that Anne was manipulated into it, and the Captain won’t humble himself a second time.)

Sally Hawkins looking tragic as Anne Elliot in the 2007 adaptation

Sally Hawkins looking tragic as Anne Elliot in the 2007 adaptation

Both film adaptations of Persuasion I find excellent. Equally heart-wrenching are the looks between Anne and Wentworth—in love, in denial, each in ignorance of the other’s devotion. It reads like a dream, for that’s what it is.

Another awesome thing about Emma is that there’s no direct antagonist. Emma’s demon conceit wreaks havoc, but she’s so HUMAN…I, at least, recognise her desire to manipulate people’s lives for her own amusement and triumph, though she may disguise it as genuine philanthropy. You can excuse her for wanting something to do with her life: single, childless, with an old father and an empty house, besides the societal pressures of being a woman at that time, Emma frankly has nothing better to do.

Mrs Elton and her 'caro sposo, Mister E', bleurgh *throws slimeballs*

Mrs Elton and her ‘caro sposo, Mister E’, bleurgh *throws slimeballs*

Anyway, there aren’t any Willoughbys and Wickhams with questionable motives: just a small town of multi-dimensional people who make their own suffering, not usually out of spite (the Eltons’ motives could be debated, but I find them more droll than malicious).

Finally the word play. Austen is famous for her way of twisting words to mock human and societal folly. Many people read her books solely for that purpose-

I was going to cite a few examples and analyse them and extol their wit, but I wrote this post in September and can’t remember where on earth my thought-chain was going. Perhaps I’ll finish that paragraph when I next read Austen. Sorry for any inconvenience caused, and for the abrupt(!) manner of ending. Perhaps it will amuse you.

"Hey, I didn't even know Mr Knightley could dance!" - the best of the Austen dances, hands down

“Hey, I didn’t even know Mr Knightley could dance!” – the best of the Austen dances, hands down

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Latin, Bagpipes and Blister Plasters

I am aware I haven’t posted since I first got the blog, and for that I profusely apologise. As I said, I’ve been away, and since I’m struggling for a post topic I can complete with little research (I have a lazy streak), I will dedicate this one to describing to you exactly where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing (well, not ‘exactly’, because that would become unnecessarily dull).

 

My first trip, mainly in June, it must be said, took me to Cambridge for my brother’s graduation. I sha’n’t give you any details of him, for they would surely be unauthorised, but I will say that the ceremony was mainly in Latin, and was described by my parents as ‘unusual, to say the least’ (I, never having been to one before, am not qualified to make a judgement).

The ceremonies at Cambridge take place from the Thursday to the Saturday, throughout the day, in the Senate House. There are thirty-one colleges in all, to date, and the students graduate according to college. The most prestigious three, King’s, Trinity and St John’s, go first, and are thereafter followed by the other colleges in order of foundation—Peterhouse, then Clare, then Pembroke, and so on.

In each ceremony, which lasts approximately twenty minutes, around sixty graduands graduate—in the case of Clare, two ceremonies were held in order to accommodate the graduations of a hundred and twenty graduands. It’s very quick, nevertheless–kind of walk in, walk out, all done, let’s go home kind of thing. Except we had a picnic instead with all the families of my brother’s friends–a creepy thing, you can imagine, since he knew his friends so well, but none of the parents had ever met!

If you’re interested enough in the Latin and all the strange gestures involved, which have been going on in the ceremony every year for the past seven centuries, I suggest you visit another website. Not that I’m not interested, but to my sorrow I was never granted the privilege of learning Latin.

There are no photos I can give you of the ceremony, for cameras were forbidden. But in any case I’m no photographer. I also apologise for the quality of what pictures I have contrived to take and include. As a general rule I take few, for a friend who I’ve never quite forgiven once poked the lens in her slapdash handling of it, and the clarity has never recovered since. But is the quality of my camera any excuse? Who knows…

Most of these pictures are those of friends. So if anyone sees these and thinks ‘they’re mine’, thanks, sorry, and I’m very surprised you’re looking at my blog.

CambridgeGraduation

My second trip away consisted of a weekend to the island of Sercq for the annual Folk Festival held there. And it is truly the best setting for a folk festival there could be! Why, they have dusty tracks instead of roads, and horsedrawn carts instead of cars. The Avenue, the Sark equivalent to a High Street, is possibly the dearest lane imaginable. And La Coupée, the causeway suspended between two cliffs several hundred feet up, is one of the most terrifying places I have ever been. But last year I was forced to ride a bicycle down it at midnight, with no lights on my vehicle, so this year I was grateful to be spared such an ordeal, and crossed it on foot in the daylight.

I have never seen a place quite like Sercq—and never will, I expect. It seems so completely and utterly untouched by anything and everything that make up our poisoned society today. You think Guernsey’s primitive? From Sark it looks like a metropolis.

Sark

Yet the contradiction involves the Barclay Brothers, who own most of the island and are always hungry for more power. Many an ode to power hoarders was dedicated to the Brothers that weekend! Still, I pray the island remains as perfect as it seems; and if it were less impractical, in matters such as transport and shopping, I might consider living there in the future, if I ever had the means to set up as a professional author.

As for the festival, folk fiends will be jealous to hear that Seth Lakeman headlined. Personally I preferred Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson, and the bagpipes on Saturday night, when the bar was selling cider and didn’t ask anyone for ID… Nah, don’t worry; I’m no drinker.

Seth Lakeman

My third and final journey was to Snowdonia in Wales. And about this one I was frankly terrified. Not merely because to get there I was forced to take the overnight boat in a recliner chair, and a six-hour coach journey the following day, and, being an awful traveller, either of these things would be enough to strike terror into my heart.

No; because this was to be a weeklong camping trip, and I’ve never camped in my life, especially far from home. And because the aim of the whole trip was to walk fifty or sixty kilometres in three days with a pack on my back that weighed more than half my own body weight, and, on top of that, in heat of twenty-nine degrees, being used to less than half of that down South.

This was my Duke of Edinburgh Silver practice expedition. And I didn’t do Bronze. I had no idea what to expect beyond all this discomfort, and members of my group who had done Bronze doubted I could make even one day, due to my slightness of size and blatant lack of physical strength.

Yet as it turned out, even this, which I honestly thought would probably kill me, wasn’t the greatest of my problems last week. I am prone to blisters, whatever shoes I wear, and I acquired some rather spectacular ones before I was halfway through the journey. However, due to a multitude of reasons which would take several thousand words to tell sufficiently to make them reasonable, I told no one the extent of my affliction.

Such when finally we completed out expedition, and I took my boots off, my companions howled with revulsion and disbelief. My feet were coated (besides with several layers of Compeed) in a thick yellow pus that was described by one of my friends somewhat inelegantly as resembling earwax.

I was scolded for my reservation by teachers who, if they were at all impressed by my endurance, well concealed it, and transported directly to the Accident and Emergency section of the nearest hospital, where my plasters (and in the process, my skin) were ripped off by a kindly nurse, bathed in antiseptic, and dressed more carefully than I could do in the dark with everyone else asleep.

The next two nights were terrible, for once the adrenalin that had seen me through the past days began to wear off, my feet began to give me great pain. But that is trivial, compared to what I underwent over the course of that walk. And that trivial, too, when I think what others have undergone in similar situations. After all, I could’ve dropped out if I’d told anyone—would’ve been forced to do so, moreover. But there are many who’ve suffered worse and with no possibility of alleviation.

In that event I apologise for how I rave about my own petty ‘achievements’!

But now everyone who was with me knows that I may be slight, spotty and seemingly snobbish (due to my apparent braininess, but lack of willingness to share it), but I am tough. And I have conquered Snowdonia as no one else in my group has done, though on the very first morning in my group there were two unnecessary dropouts. Yes, I am tough.

I flatter myself I am proud. Forgive my pride, and my arrogance therein. It’s not often I can be proud of anything that doesn’t involve academia.

Sorry; down on good photos. If someone uploads a better one I'll swap it.

Sorry; down on good photos. If someone uploads a better one I’ll swap it.

And amid all this, I have been attempting to do CampNaNo! My goal is only 25,000, what with the fact I’ve spent three quarters of the month off-island and much of that with no time or means for writing, but it is a goal nevertheless, and one which I am determined to meet.

CampNaNo13

So that is where I have been and what I have been doing. If I have sounded very stilted in this post, I apologise (once again), for I have recently been ‘Lost in Austen’, to quote a friend, and she has a marked effect on my style.

I hope to get back into blogging after this, having fired my enthusiasm once again in writing this post. But then again, as I mentioned, I ought to be concentrating on NaNo so far as writing goes…

Why I Don’t Do Fantasy

EDIT: Reading back, this post seems narrow-minded and prejudiced, not to mention ill-informed. I still stand by my general disconnection from the fantasy genre, if not all the points outlined beneath. In my defence, I was about fourteen when I wrote this post.

I’ve never written a fantasy in my life. And, coincidentally, I don’t read much fantasy. There are a couple which will forever hold pride of place on my bookshelf, but these are few, and I’ve certainly never been inspired to imitate them.

We all know Twilight made werewolves and vampires popular, inspiring everyone to write fan-fics, zombie apocalypses and vampire romances.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then there’s the other type of fantasy—the inventive fantasy, the traditional fantasy, the adventure fantasy, like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And that seems to be coming back in.

But why can’t I get into that sort of thing? Am I just too lazy to think about all that faff, or is it something deeper?

There are arguments for fantasy, it is true. We readers like to escape, to immerse ourselves in other places, to dream and imagine and create… But sometimes we can escape too much. We can explore real life just as well by staying here than by going off somewhere else.

I know we can apply the philosophical and social comments in our stories to all sorts of situations, no less fantasy, and readers are supposed to recognise fantastical lands as places of dream-world. Yet still… My favourite stories are as credible as credible can be—real life situations, which could truly happen in my life or anyone else’s. A story doesn’t need to be anything more.

Plus, there’s less to think about. When I read fantasy, I feel bombarded by masses of information, lands, maps, languages, species… I feel stupid for not knowing this stuff inside out, as the author does. It’s too easy to overdo it, or even underdo it. I know what you’re thinking: I haven’t read enough of it!

I read a portal fantasy this month. The world was easily recognisable as a combination of Narnia and Middle-earth, though significantly dumbed-down for a childish audience. And the three children characters were frankly the least interesting, realistically intelligent or imaginative family I’ve ever read. They weren’t treated like characters; they were treated like ‘ordinary children’ who were really very unusual in their colourlessness. I was frustrated by how one-sidedly they were portrayed, and blamed it on the clichéd setting. The author evidently spent so much time developing their copied world, they forgot to develop the MCs.

I stick to the real world, and  focus on things readers will recognise.

I like relevance—blatant relevance for the teenagers who aren’t craving to bury their heads in the sand and dream of illusory realms, but to be given a clearer understanding of the world around them and how to deal with it. Stories offer messages whatever genre they’re in, but that doesn’t mean your readers will know how to recognise the message, much less apply it.

Besides which, I hate the concept of magic in the mortal life. I’m not against paranormal, but I like things to stay realistic. Turning to magic to get my characters out of a sticky situation feels like betraying my imagination. Sound contradictory?

If you’re going to use magic, you’ve got to make it believable. You’ve got to set boundaries. Who can use the magic, to what extent, and in what situations? Don’t make some great scientific thing about it—just set simple rules, where all rules are essential to the overall plot (not just some sketch you could just as easily do without), and stick to them. It’s not that difficult. But readers get annoyed if you make magic an invincible weapon. Where’s the tension? Where’s the jeopardy?

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien at no point makes it clear that Frodo and Sam will definitely return from Mordor alive, much less succeed in their quest. The black cloud of Mordor keeps the pages turning, because the hobbits are virtually defenceless without the rest of the Fellowship. We don’t doubt Gollum’s ability to smother them both, if he really wanted to. Middle-earth may be a place of strange and wonderful powers, but magic isn’t the be-all and end-all of the place, and it’s really the strength and courage of our heroes that saves the world. Magic should not be your get-out clause, or your small print in the contract. We don’t like those.

CG depiction of Gollum created by Weta Digital...

So I suppose all my reasons run together, but I’m sure it’s clear what I’m trying to say. Right now, it’s just not my thing.