A realisation:

I’m currently reading – and very near to finishing – David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. To say that I’m loving it is an epic understatement. I’m finding it strange, and wonderful, and gripping, and beguiling. Hilarious  in places, the literary scene leg pulling; laugh out loud hilarious. And delightful too, from a writerly, rather than readerly, perspective. When David Mitchell plays with language, he really plays; poetic writing that riots across the page, teasing  with rhythm, with balance, with alliteration, with semantic strings of meanings and oppositions. In my opinion – humble or otherwise – he is a writer’s writer: fearlessly, genre bendingly, inventive.

It’s not overstating the case to say, that whilst reading The Bone Clocks, I arrived at an epiphany. A moment of clarity, if you will. A reference is made, in the novel, to a piece of music I had not come across before. I’m not particularly au fait with Sibelius, but for some reason I had to stop reading to google The Swan of Tuonela. A rewarding hiatus in reading, for it gave me a thing of beauty, and an inspiration, a way back into the story I began in my aborted NaNoWrimo effort. And it gave me the realisation that all stories are maps. They show us the way – if we are receptive to seeing – the way into other stories, and the stories of others. They show us ways into ourselves, and the way through our own stories. They show us the path behind us, that brought us to here, to now. And they show us all the ways forward. This may already have been blindingly obvious to you. Intellectually, I knew it. But, listening to the music, I felt it. Epiphanic. And, ecstatic.

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An in-between Summer…

I haven’t blogged for ooh, ages. I know. I’ve been meaning to, but, you know how it is. And I absolutely have to make a conscious decision to be better organised. Although, in my defence, I had three weeks of rather nasty back pain that stopped me in my tracks. It’s frightening how something so simple can utterly derail everything: there is no getting away from back pain, it colours everything in jagged spines that slice right through the core of you. And then it just becomes so fucking boring, too. But never mind, it’s done with now. Hurrah.

So I’m in that in-between phase, in the no-man’s land between having been a bit useless, and gearing up to Do All The Things. And it’s the school holidays too: my daughter has finished primary school, and is doing the developmental groundwork before full rehearsals for the teenage years begin. And of course, getting ready for secondary school. We have begun buying the uniform etc. And I have remembered how to tie a tie, a thing I haven’t had to wear since 1988. So there’s that little tidbit of knowledge to impart. And once the new routine begins in September, and the new stationery has been bought, and the new pencils sharpened, perhaps new words will be transmitted from brain to paper, and screen.

So in the meantime, we play. We go to the cinema, (we’ve seen Ant-Man, and LOVED IT, and Inside Out, which we enjoyed), we go swimming, we’ll be going to London, and there’ll be other things to do too. In the meantime, I have to negotiate access to my desk, while my daughter constructs worlds in MineCraft.

In the meantime, there is the small matter of rehearsing some readings. I have been asked to participate in the Spoken Word event at this year’s Stroud Fringe Festival. I have been described, by someone whose professional opinion I value a great deal, as ‘an up and coming writer’. Oh, GULP. Someone has faith in me, and has publicly declared it. And I find that I am feeling a little daunted. I mustn’t disappoint. I mustn’t let them down. I absolutely HAVE to be better at what I do. Cue, getting organised. Etc.

In the meantime, here is something I’ve been listening to for ages, because I love it. I’m listening to it now, in fact. So plug in your headphones, close your eyes/ turn out the lights, and let it wash through you. It’s beautiful.

NB: As of yet, the Fringe website does not have performance details. But it will, soon.

Things that are Epic

I’ve been away from social media quite a lot lately. And that’s okay. I have decided to treat this year as one of transition, rather in the manner of AD69 (the year of the four emperors), although considerably less bloody. Hopefully, less bloody.

I haven’t written anything new this year, yet. I have been editing, polishing, tweaking. I will be submitting again, too. I have been having some seriously odd dreams. And I am LOVING being the mother of an eleven-and-a-half year old girl when there is so much excellent stuff by Joss Whedon to show her. We’re up to Season 5 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and have been to see Avengers: Age of Ultron, twice. The other night I showed her the first Iron Man flick. And she loves it, and she gets it, and it’s all brilliant, and to use her word, EPIC. I’m smiling as I type this, just thinking about what she has yet to see, and how much she is going to love it.

The other thing I have been doing, is reading. I recently finished The Waterborne Blade, by my very good friend Susan Murray (Angry Robot Books, 9780857664358) Once upon a time, before I had my daughter, and could still burn the candle at both ends without serious repercussions (so about 12 years ago…) I would have devoured this book in one night, and then kicked myself for not drawing it out longer because the next instalment will not be published for another year. As it was, I managed to eke out the reading of it, even deliberately slowing down, in order to prolong the enjoyment of it. For this is fast-paced fantasy of the highest order. The reader is plunged headfirst into court politics, and danger. There is no omniscient narration, so no sense of Destiny hooded and cloaked walking the land signposting all the important things that haven’t happened yet. We see the land – and the situations – as and when the main characters see them, depending on whose head we’re in at the time. Any references to the past are momentary and incomplete, acts of memory triggered by scene, or scenario: a nice touch of realism that prevents heavy info-dumping, and keeps the pace going. Not once does it slow down. Because the chapters are short, the level of tension is consistently maintained – rather like a steady hand turning the rack (can’t think why I thought of that simile!). The plot is anything but predictable, and the characters properly rounded. There is mystery, and magic, and the practicalities of life on the open road (people actually need to pee). I found that I cared a good deal about Alwenna, alternately infuriated and worried by her, and by Ranald Weaver, the Kingsman whose loyalty is tested and divided and tested again. In short, this is epic, intelligent fantasy that doesn’t rely on excessive sex and violence to pad it out. Read it! But don’t rush it – there’s at least a year to wait for the sequel.

Tsundoku, or, So Many Books, So Little Time

The Japanese seem to have a word for all of the abstract, post-modern things. I like that. (And now I have Björk’s The Modern Things playing in my head. I like that, too.) If, like me, you happen to work in Bookselling (and please, do make yourself known. Hopefully we’re not exactly an endangered species, but we are rare, these days), then a state of tsundoku is an occupational hazard.

But what is this tsundoku? I hear you ask. It is, put simply, the buying of books, and not reading them. Letting them accrue, pile up, in heaps, on the floor, on bookcases, on bedside tables. And I am oh so guilty. I seem to have lost the stamina I used to have, for devouring books. The stamina, but not the appetite. It’s just my eyes have become too large for my reading belly. Also, the depression thing is a bitch for making it impossible to focus on reading. Hence I am months* behind. And then there’s the tiredness thing. Last night I decided I’d go to bed early and read. And I fell asleep about a third of a way down a page (just one page!). I woke up with the book on my chest. I’m beginning to think that my chest is better read than I am.

I stopped in the middle of composing this post to go around the house collecting my unread books. And I’m a bit worried now, there are so many of them. So, I refuse to count them.

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But, this is just a small selection of what is waiting to be read. I have recently begun William Gibson’s The Peripherals, and Katherine Heiny’s collection Single, Carefree, Mellow (I tend to read short fiction when it is quiet at work). And each week, when I go to work, I swear that I won’t buy any more books, because God knows I have more than enough. But then, something gets a glowing review, or is released in paperback after I restrained myself from buying the hardback the year before, or someone I know rates a title highly, or my curiosity is piqued… etc. You know how it is. I seem to be an addict. Ah well. It could be worse. All I need is time. Anyone know where I can buy some?

*years, really.

On Endings – a rambling post where I rant a bit and try not to be too guilty of spoilers.

More than genre, more than subject, it is the ending that defines a story, and defines how we will remember it. Sometimes an ending will exceed our expectations. Sometimes, it will derail us. And sometimes, of course, we will be disappointed. Sometimes we get to laugh, sometimes we get to sob uncontrollably and wonder what on earth we could possibly bring ourselves to read or watch next.

Sometimes, I think, people have unrealistic expectations. The ending they want isn’t necessarily the right ending for the story. Not all endings should be of the fairy-tale variety – but more about that later. ‘The end’ is not always a guarantee of closure (and where would sequels and series be if closure was de rigueur?). Charles Dickens knew this. When he wrote Great Expectations (1860-1) he came up with two endings: the right ending for a realist novel, and the fairy-tale ending he knew his readers would want. Personally, I prefer the original ending: it is far more satisfying than the too easy fairy-tale variant. And really, beyond having unrealistic expectations, what did Pip do to ‘deserve’ Estella? Far better that Estella should reclaim her personal agency from the legacy of Miss Havisham’s sense of vengeance, and from her disastrous first marriage, by finding happiness with someone outside of the story, than by ‘rewarding’ the boy she used to tease. On the other hand there are those in whom the words ‘Reader, I married him’, inspire a deep rage. Is it not enough that Jane Eyre holds on to her principles, her virtue, her hard won sense of self worth, and then gets to marry the man she loves on her own terms – not his – and as an equal? Her fairy-tale is tarnished by the madwoman in the attic, and everything she stands for; why should she not marry her psychologically and physically scarred love, and have babies? Why should she not retain her own agency and follow her heart?

Similarly, the Channel 4 drama Southcliffe (2013) seemed to garner a less than favourable response for the final episode. Judging by the reactions in my Twitter feed, the preferred ending would have seen all the untidy loose ends neatly tied off in double knots and the threads snipped. Not wanting to be spoilery, I will only say that for me, the ending made sense. In a story dealing with seemingly senseless acts of violence, and the aftermath of grief, how do you write any meaningful kind of closure? Grief is messy: it lasts as long as it lasts. To underscore this point, one of the main characters (played by Rory Kinnear) is shown to be be still dealing with the bullying he endured a child. Again, what meaningful kind of realistic closure can there be for him? In the real world, vengeance should not always be enacted  – indeed, the very point of the main story: the burning need for personal vengeance meant tragedy for too many other people. There are always consequences. But resolution is far more rare.

I have a theory that collectively we have been spoiled by the Hollywood version of happily ever after. Sure, there’s the occasional blockbuster that isn’t afraid to take the road less travelled, but for every Se7en (1995) there are too many films that are afraid to aim for anything other than the cliché. Which is fine, as far as it goes: sometimes it’s nice to see the prostitute go shopping before ending up with the wealthy business man who paid her for sex. Pretty Woman (my god but 1990 is an AGE ago) is a classic Hollywood fairytale. More to the point it’s a classic Disney fairytale, of the same vintage as The Little Mermaid (1989): a happy ending can’t be a happy ending unless the princess gets her man, regardless of the ending of the original source material. (see also, rewriting history: Pocahontas and her supposed relationship with John Smith, for which there is no evidence, etc etc)

I have a problem with Hollywood altered endings. I am aware that what makes a good novel and what makes a good film are not always mutually inclusive. There are always certain compromises to be made: events and characters cut, condensed, rearranged. But change the ending, and the story is rarely altered for the better. Compare Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (1997) with the 2007 film. Both are tagged as a fairytale that won’t behave. One ending is ultimately sweetly, darkly sad. The other is considerably less so. I leave it to you to work out which is which. (I love both: they are two separate entities, and that’s fine.) But both are fairytale endings. The film The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009) manages to sidestep the darkness of the 2003 novel’s ending, in favour of taking the cake and liberally smearing it right across the collective audience’s face. The text again is rendered as two separate entities, but  – and of course this is only my opinion –  at the expense of the novel’s identity: the flavour of schmaltz has never appealed less.

But sometimes, of course, we are given the unexpected ending; endings that seem to promise one thing, and give us something else.  If you have neither read, nor watched Atonement (2001/2007), then please, do.

Voyage and Return

You may have noticed – or you may not, and indeed, why should you? – that it’s been a while since I posted anything here. And there have been good reasons for that. Perhaps too many. But the summer was hot, and I was quiet. Books were read, stories drafted, thoughts were thought, and mostly not acted upon. Autumn was harder, but with more of the same. And I got older. And I cut my hair. That last thing is a thing I am incredibly happy about. I know it’s only hair, but still… it’s been more than a decade since I last had such short hair, and it makes me feel sassy, and sophisticated, and possibly other things beginning with s (stylish? silly? saucy? serene?).

Around the same time I discovered a little snippet in the wilds of the internet – oh all right, it was Facebook – a quotation from Carl Gustav Jung:

I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.

It isn’t a cure, it isn’t even a complete answer – to a question that is both unaskable and unanswerable – but it HELPS. So I’m choosing. I don’t pretend to have reached any particular destination on my personal voyage in order to begin the return journey. This is just a way station.

In the meantime, there is Christmas to prepare for, and satsumas to eat (the one I’m eating right now is a bit of a disappointment; too watery and not sharp enough. Perhaps the next one will be better), and words to write and edit, and I still haven’t written the Christmas cards. But my hair looks fabulous.

The staying power of stories

I’ve written before about the impact of good short fiction, the meteorite punch in your heart, or mind – or better yet, both – as you read. But can anyone honestly say that they remember every single short story they’ve ever read? (Unless they’ve only read five, and have a photographic memory.) Some craters are punched deeper than others. Some stories are just a shower of pretty lights in the sky, enjoyed while the sparkle lasts, until eclipsed by other stories.

Bearing in mind that of course my opinion is entirely subjective, here is a selection of some of my favourite short stories, the ones that have stayed.

Leonardo, Michelangelo, Superstork: Helen Dunmore Ice Cream (Penguin 2001)

Set in a world where eugenic health means that natural conception is outlawed, and a lawful pregnancy needs a mortgage to fund it, it was perhaps a mistake to read this one when I was pregnant. It’s a powerful story, and a hopeful one, strongly told. I love it.

The Gernsback Continuum: William Gibson Burning Chrome (Grafton 1988)

A photographer is commissioned to document a future that was never realised, the science fiction utopia promised by 1930s American design and pulp fiction covers, the Hollywood gothic of Ming the Merciless. And then the veil between that lost future’s aesthetic, and the modern now begins to tear; Metropolis bleeds through. If you loved Neuromancer, read this collection.

Other Kingdom: E.M.Forster Selected Stories (Penguin 2001)

A girl is given the deed to a woodland by her fiance’s father. Her fiance does not understand her nature, seeking to possess her, fence in her freedom. In love as much with the silvan spirit of classicism as with him, she escapes her jealous lover in a way he will never understand. If you know your myths, think of Apollo and Daphne.

The Piper At The Gates of Dawn: Kenneth Grahame The Wind In The Willows (Egmont 1971)

Strictly speaking this isn’t a short story per se, but I read it originally in a long disintegrated animal stories anthology, before I was given my own copy of The Wind In The Willows in 1979. And it is beautiful, and mystical, and the poetic magic in it never fails to move me. Also, today is Midsummer, so it is only fitting that I should mention it now.

The Woman on the Dunes: Anais Nin A Model And Other Stories (Penguin 1995)

This was the first erotica I ever read, at the tender age of 23. My god but I was innocent then! But this is beautiful, tender, and poetic. And, obviously, erotic.

Kew Gardens: Virginia Woolf A Haunted House: The Complete Shorter Fiction (Vintage 2003)

An afternoon in Kew Gardens: impressionistic, Modern, beautiful, strange. It has haunted me, I think.

Pipes: Etgar Keret The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories (Toby Press 2004)

I read this on the train from Paddington. I cried. The girl next to me tried to pretend that I wasn’t there, despite the fact that I cried oh so discreetly. It’s about disappearing, and finding a way into happiness. It is hopeful, and wistful and, wonderful. And it breaks my heart.

The Cat Lover: Kate Atkinson Not The End Of The World (Black Swan 2003)

I love this whole collection, where the stories are set in the here and now, while figures from Greek myth wander about and interfere. In this one, a stray cat takes over a woman’s life, in so many mythological ways… Just fabulous.

Fifty Percent One/Fifty Percent Two: Nik Perring and Caroline Smailes Freaks (The Friday project 2012)

Two heartbreaks, a misunderstanding, a not-good-enough chance. In a collection about small  – and not so small –  strangenesses, this one, for me stood out. Tender and hopeless and hurting, yet I don’t think it does encapsulate the superpower it says on the tin, the power to amplify memories. It doesn’t need to. That kind of pain never goes away. But, read it, read all of it, and judge for yourselves. You won’t regret it.

The Tiger’s Bride: Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber (Vintage 2006)

A variant on the story of Beauty And The Beast, told in language so rich it’s almost distracting. Lusciously, seductively finessed.

Snow, Glass, Apples: Neil Gaiman Smoke And Mirrors (Headline 1999)

A retelling of Snow White, turned inside out and upside down, as only Neil Gaiman can, with a debt to Angela Carter. Beautiful and disturbing, by possibly my favourite living author.

So. I’ve shown you mine. It’s your turn to show me yours. What are some of your favourite short stories?
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