Tag Archives: Christmas

Happy Christmas

To those who celebrate – Happy Christmas.

To those who celebrate and those who don’t, I wish you all peace and happiness, and the joy of a life well lived. I would like to say ‘thanks’ for reading this blog throughout the past year, for leaving comments and likes, for engaging with what I have to say and for supporting me on my writing journey. I hope to have lots more news and milestones to share in 2015, and I hope you’ll all be there with me, every step of the way.

Dec(k) the Halls…

I’ve been having a right old job, this year, of levering myself into some semblance of Christmas spirit. This lovely blog post, over here, is packed full of tips on how to get your bells jingling and your wee three kings Orient-ing, or whatever, and so yesterday evening I had a chance to put some of those tips to the test.

Namely: the house got decorated to within an inch of its life. Seriously. There’s tinsel everywhere.

First, of course, we had to take care of our Santa Claus-es.

I'm just sittin' here, ringin' my bell...

I’m just sittin’ here, ringin’ my bell…

Doesn’t he look relaxed? Almost like he’s saying ‘Hey, you guys. I should’ve been sitting here for, like, two weeks already?’ Better late than never, little Santa. Better late than never.

His larger and somehow hairier brother then assumed his position:

Fmff! Whut? Is it Christmas again already? I can't see out through this beard!

Fmff! Whut? Is it Christmas again already? I can’t see out through this beard!

Every time someone walks past this guy, he jingles – just a little, but enough to let you know he’s watching you. Which isn’t at all creepy.

Next, it was time to put up the tree…

I feel pretty... Oh, so pretty...

I feel pretty… Oh, so pretty…

What do you mean, ‘that’s not a Christmas tree’? Of course it is! Branches, and a star on top, and… stuff hanging off the branches! It even spins, and plays a Christmas carol as it goes!

All right. *sigh* I should’ve known I couldn’t fool you guys.

Out to the shed we went, then, and brought in the big tree, which has been wrapped up in plastic since last year (in case of spiders – yeeuch! Luckily, there weren’t any living in it this year), and after much huffing and puffing and artistic differences, we managed to create this:

I. Am. FABULOUS.

I. Am. FABULOUS.

We also put up our small (but perfectly formed) crib, and some more little touches, like a sweet little chorister figurine which sits on our TV table. I then did my usual ‘twisting tinsel through the banisters’ nonsense, which looks like a troupe of cabaret artists have just passed through – but dangit, it’s undeniably festive.

But my favourite bit (if I can say I’ve got a favourite bit) is this:

Emmanuel, Emmanuel, the King of Kings is born...

Emmanuel, Emmanuel, the King of Kings is born…

I like to remember the real ‘reason for the Season’, too, and this beautiful angel decoration, made by a craftsman in the town where I grew up, is my way of doing that. I love this decoration, and another one in a similar style showing the Virgin and Child, which is on the other side of our Christmas tree.

So, we’re fully dec(k)ed out now. Yay!

I’m still feeling a little bah-humbuggy, but I hope that seeing our lovely tree every time I go into the living room (even if it is rather in the way of my bookshelves, hmph!) will lift my spirits a bit.

I hope you’ve been getting into the swing of things, if you and/or your family celebrate Christmas, and that your houses would leave mine in the shade when it comes to the fabulousness of your decorations. It does, undeniably, make the whole place seem a bit livelier, so if – like me – you’re feeling curmudgeonly this year, try fancying up your living space a little, and see if it helps.

Happy decorating! And hope you all have lovely Christmases.

 

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot… (Well, a Little)

…like Christmas. Isn’t it, though?

My beloved has gone to work two days in a row wearing a novelty reindeer hat, and I’ve been spending a lot of time writing cards. I’ve also been spending rather a lot of time trying to decipher my own scrawl, and sort through the piles of scrap paper which constitute my ‘address book’; every single year I tell myself ‘never again!’ yet every single year, here I am.

I get myself over the crisis period, and I get the cards written (after a fashion), and then I forget all about the address consolidation project I’ve told myself I’ll tackle. It just, somehow, never gets done.

Possibly, this is because I only really need to use the addresses of my friends and loved ones once a year, which is sad in its own way.

Anyway.

All I’m really feeling, though, instead of Christmas cheer or bonhomie or whatever, is tired. Getting out of bed is so hard these dark mornings, and the feeling of weights being tied to your limbs as you struggle about your day is something I always associate with this time of year. I love the cold, crisp days, and the frosty mornings, and the sparkling nights where the stars seem newly polished, and the shops and houses festooned with decorations, and the red-cheeked excitement on the face of every child you meet – but man. I really feel like I need a rest. Being left alone with a pile of books and a reading light (oh, and tea- and coffee-making facilities, please) would be the best Christmas gift I could ask for.

I used to adore Christmas as a kid. I’m talking starting to get excited about Santa Claus in August. I do, still, love the idea – who doesn’t love the idea of people taking time out to show one another how much they’re loved, and making a special effort to spend time with friends and family? – but, I don’t know. My Christmas spirit is getting a little more depleted with every passing year, and this upsets me. I don’t want it to fizzle away. I’d like to nurture my inner Virginia. I want to believe in the power of Christmas to rejuvenate and refresh me, and I’d love to find, somewhere deep inside, that same bubbling excitement that used to herald Christmas for me when I was young.

Is it just an inevitability of getting older, that we lose the magic of this time of year? I’m not sure. I know people, of my own vintage, who get as excited as any child about the approach of Yuletide, and who go about singing carols from mid-November, and who have a pair of Christmas socks for every day of the Twelve Days, and who would keep their Christmas trees up all year round, if they could get away with it. So, perhaps there’s more to it than that. Perhaps nurturing the magic of Christmas is something that can be worked on. I hope so, because I’m going to try it.

And here’s how.

We haven’t decorated our house yet, so perhaps that will be this weekend’s task. I’ll monitor my festivity levels after that, and see how they’re affected.

Then, I’ll get some cinnamon-y and/or clove-y candles, and light them, and inhale deeply. After that, I’ll take more festivity readings.

We’ve been lucky enough to receive some Christmas cards already, so I’ll artfully arrange those where I can see them with ease, and every time my eye falls on them I’ll remember how many people I have in my life to love and cherish. (I’ll take another reading after that).

I’ll really work on putting Christmas spirit into all the cards I write and send. It’s easy to write the words ‘thinking of you at Christmas’, but I’m really going to mean it when I write them, and I hope it’ll come through at the other end. This has, I think, already started affecting my festivity levels.

And I’ll take a little time – perhaps in a church, perhaps not – to think about the people I love and how blessed I am to have them, and I’ll be thankful for their presence in my life. Something tells me this will be the most important step I can take in my efforts to rekindle my Christmas spirit. Because, after all, family and love and togetherness is what it’s all about.

I hope you’re not suffering the same Christmas ennui as I am, but if you are, take heart. It’s never too late to get it back. And if you’re a person with a surplus of JingleBell-itis, could you send some my way? Just a little bit, if you can spare it.

Happy preparing-for-Christmas to all of you who celebrate, and my very best wishes to everyone. No matter what your creed or traditions, it’s never a bad idea to be thankful, and to look for the magic in the everyday. Let’s all try to remember that.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron’

I’ve written a lot of book reviews at this stage. I’ve read SF, fantasy, children’s and YA books, general literature, classical literature, high-concept literary fiction, lots of stuff. I’ve reviewed loads of different types of book, some good and some bad, but all interesting.

One thing I’ve never done is written a review of a collection of short stories – to my knowledge, at least. So, today’s book review will be just that. Today, I’m looking at ‘Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron,’ which was published in 2012 by Hot Key Books, and edited by Jonathan Strahan.

Image: andysmithillustrator.blogspot.com

Image: andysmithillustrator.blogspot.com

This fantastic collection of witchy tales was a Christmas gift from my husband (who is, clearly, a very clever man). It includes offerings from luminaries such as Holly Black, Frances Hardinge, Neil Gaiman (who, sadly, wrote the shortest entry), Garth Nix, Jim Butcher, Margo Lanagan and many others. There were a few names I’d never heard of among the contributors, and a fair few more whose names I’d heard, but whose work I’d never read. So, needless to say, I dived in with gusto.

All the tales have a common thread, which is witches – of course.

All this, and more! Image: enchantmentschool.blogspot.com

All this, and more!
Image: enchantmentschool.blogspot.com

We meet people who are just beginning their magical journey, and those who are so steeped in the Craft that is as natural to them as breathing. We meet male and female witches, old and young witches, good and bad witches. We meet familiars of all sorts, and people with the power to swap their bodies with animals, and shapeshifters. We meet love and passion and sensuality as well as cruel savagery and selfishness. There are different cultures, languages and traditions here. In short, it’s far more than it appears.

Some of the most gripping and memorable tales, for me, came from Delia Sherman (‘The Witch in the Wood’), Frances Hardinge (‘Payment Due’), Jim Butcher (‘B is for Bigfoot’), Peter S. Beagle (‘Great-Grandmother in the Cellar’) and Holly Black (‘Little Gods’). Only one story – Tanith Lee’s ‘Felidis’ – was left unfinished; I just couldn’t get into it at all. In every other story, I found something to like and admire, even if I wouldn’t have finished things quite like that, or I would have changed this detail… but then, that’s the beauty of a collection of short stories. One has barely faded before you’re on to the next, and – as a cohesive collection – this book is wonderful (with the exception of the Tanith Lee story, but who knows. I may come back to it in the future and wonder why on earth I couldn’t finish it the first time).

I’ll take a closer look at some of my favourite tales, which will hopefully give a flavour of the book overall. Firstly, then, let’s talk about Delia Sherman’s ‘The Witch in the Wood’, which is a wonderfully written story. It has lyrical, poetic language and a marvellous protagonist, Mildryth – a woman who lives alone in the forest and doesn’t even realise she is a witch until she is told so by a shapeshifting man she mistakenly shoots with an arrow on a hunting trip. She falls in love with this wounded deer-man, and nurses him back to health, only to discover there is a deep and powerful reason why he is a shapeshifter, and that there are dangerous forces on his tail. One of the reasons I loved this story so much is that, unlike a lot of the others in this collection, it has a fantastic ending. It concludes perfectly, with punch and style and suspense, leaving the reader knowing that the characters’ story doesn’t end where the text does, but giving us enough confidence in Mildryth to know that whatever happens, she will handle it.

Frances Hardinge – who, let’s face it, I love anyway – has written a most amazing story for this collection. ‘Payment Due’ is a tale of a fifteen-year-old girl whose grandmother’s house is targeted by bailiffs, who turn up one day to demand payment of a debt. They settle it by reclaiming most of the old lady’s belongings, much to her distress and that of her granddaughter. As I read the beginning of the story, I thought perhaps the older woman would turn out to be the witch – she is portrayed as being gentle, inoffensive, completely innocent of the world, and so I thought she would exhibit a turnaround in character and reveal herself to be a powerful figure instead of a powerless one – but Hardinge took those expectations and turned them inside-out. This story also features a magnificent central character, one completely at home with her magical power and utterly in control of it, and her use of her abilities is masterful – much like Hardinge herself.

Image: franceshardinge.com

Image: franceshardinge.com

‘B is for Bigfoot’ is classic Jim Butcher. Wonderfully, the story is told in the voice of Butcher’s famous character Harry Dresden, the protagonist of his ‘Dresden Files’ series, which I love. Harry Dresden is Chicago’s only practising wizard, which means he gets called upon to take care of all manner of weird and wonderful things, risking his life in the process a lot of the time. This story sees him summoned by a creature named Strength of a River in His Shoulders, who is – you’ve guessed it – a Bigfoot. River Shoulders, as Dresden instantly renames him, has a half-human son in a local high school who needs help; the boy is being victimised by bullies, and for obvious reasons his father can’t come to his aid. So, Dresden is seconded in his place. As we’re dealing with Dresden, though, things are never as straightforward as they seem. This story is full of typical Harry Dresden humour, and Jim Butcher’s witty and naturalistic style, with great snappy dialogue and wonderful characterisation.

Though the collection does have its ups and downs – namely, several stories seemed unfinished, or badly concluded, and Neil Gaiman’s contribution is a poem instead of a story, which irritated me a little – this is a book I will treasure and come back to time and time again. It holds many gems, not necessarily limited to the stories I’ve mentioned above, and – like all good collections – every reader will take something unique away from it. I enjoyed the different viewpoints, writing styles, cultural ideas about ‘the witch’ – not all the witches are the typical ‘warts on the nose, pointy hat’ type that a European reader might be most familiar with – and, most particularly, the flights of imagination contained within this book. It’s a definite recommendation.

Here’s to loads more reading in 2014! Did you get any books for Christmas? Do tell…

Par-Rum-Pa-Pum-Pum…

It’s not Christmas without a bit of Bing and Bowie:

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a wish for peace, and a new year filled with hope.

You Can’t Win ‘Em All

It’s almost time to hang my ‘Gone Fishin” sign on the front of this blog and take a short hiatus for the festive season. I am officially ‘on holiday’ from today; I’ve retreated to my parents’ house, I’m on commis chef duty in the galley, and all those last-minute things that always manage to slip your mind until it’s (almost) too late are starting to pile up.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – but it sure is busy.

And also, stuff like this tends to happen. Image: staceygustafson.com

And also, stuff like this tends to happen.
Image: staceygustafson.com

In some ways, running around trying to get everything done at this time of year is a huge hassle, but in another it’s the best thing imaginable. This year, I think it’s a blessing in disguise for me. My brain needs a break from routine, and I’m glad to be able to give it a chance to refocus.

Maybe you’ll recall me saying that I had a task I wanted to complete before I declared myself off duty for Christmas; that task was to finish the first draft of ‘Emmeline.’ Sadly, however, I did not manage to complete that goal. Over the past few weeks I’ve been hit by two bouts of illness, which knocked me slightly sideways, and even though I’ve been doing my best to work through them I seem to have run out of steam, just a little. I have over 69,000 words of the book written – of course, that’s not to say 68,999 of them won’t be scrapped when it comes to editing time – and I’m happy with my progress, but I’m not happy to have fallen short of my aim. I really wanted to have a conclusion to ‘Emmeline’ written, saved and put away by the time Christmas rolled around, ready to be eviscerated by my editing brain come January.

Now, instead, I have to get myself back into writing mode as soon as my holiday period ends – and already I feel like I’m behind on next year’s work before it even begins.

I like to hit my targets, and I don’t like to make promises to myself – or other people – which I do not manage to keep. So, even though it feels silly to say so, I can’t shake the thought that my not getting ‘Emmeline’ completely finished is breaking my word, albeit only to myself. Having said that, I can honestly say I did my best to get the book finished. As well as that, ‘Emmeline’ has been tying up my mind for weeks now – which is why, in some ways, I think having to take a break from it is a good thing. It doesn’t feel like it right now, but I hope in the longer run it’ll pay off.

I reserve the right to look like this in the meantime, though:

Image: aspirekc.com

Image: aspirekc.com

I’ll probably be too busy over the next few days to even think about my little heroine and her bunch of erstwhile friends, and the fact that I’ve left her hanging in a perilous situation, and the fact that I’ll be sending off a new round of queries to agents in the new year, and entering another competition, and trying to plan my next project (already in the pipeline); at least, I hope so. I think I’d like my head to be filled with baking dilemmas and seating arrangements for Christmas dinner and parcel-wrapping and all those other seasonal disasters that one expects at this time of year. Maybe then going back to ‘Emmeline’ will seem like a welcome change, and the book will be the stronger for it.

The past year has been a crazy one, for me. I started it in the throes of a book which will now never be read by anyone – neither human nor machine – and I finish it with (almost) three other books to my credit, and some encouraging feedback from a few very knowledgeable sources. I started it in a total panic – and I’m pretty much ending it the same way – but I do feel like I have a slightly better handle on the terror now than I did this time last year. I started 2013 wondering if I had the gumption and the grit to see it through, and I finish it safe in the knowledge that I have, and I did, and I will (one day, somehow) prevail. I guess that’s progress, by anyone’s measure.

And so, as I pull the shutters down over ‘Clockwatching…’ for a few days of rest, I want to say ‘thank you’ for reading, commenting, following my faltering progress, and cheering me on. If you’re celebrating Christmas, I hope you and your family have a wonderful time; if you’re not celebrating, I hope you have a fantastic Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. I’ll see you all again next week when I’ll be back to the drawing board, and (hopefully) the Muse won’t have forgotten about me over the Christmas break.

Image: justhappyquotes.com

Image: justhappyquotes.com

And who knows – perhaps Santa Claus will bring me representation and a publishing deal for Christmas… I’ve hung my stocking up, just in case.

Have a peaceful, happy and joyful Christmas, and let’s hope a bright New Year awaits us all.

Sisyphus – I Feel your Pain, Man

It’s the twelfth of December. Say what?

Image: funnyjunk.com

Image: funnyjunk.com

Santa is, indeed, coming. So is the end of the year, which is a lot less pleasant to think about.

You may remember – mainly because I went on and on and on about it – that I completed NaNoWriMo this year. That means I wrote 50,000 words in less than 30 days. However, I’m beginning to wonder if I dreamed the whole thing, because it’s now been nearly two weeks since NaNoWriMo finished, and since then I’ve written about 9,000 words, tops. I sit down at my computer, and open up my document, and I scroll to the spot where I left off last time.

And I feel like this.

Image: scienceblogs.com

Image: scienceblogs.com

Getting through the work, day by day by day, is akin to strapping on a pair of cement boots and taking a brisk walk up the Matterhorn. It’s just so hard, and I don’t understand why.

Consider these points:

1. I have plenty of story left. I am nowhere near the conclusion of this book, and I know (in a broad sense) what I want to happen. It’s just a matter of getting there.

2. This feeling of mental block only happens when I’m actually at my desk. I was out for a walk yesterday, f’rinstance, and found my head filling up with ideas and enthusiasm and sheer delight at the thought of returning to my story, and so I galloped home. All that enthusiasm took a nosedive out the window as soon as the computer was switched back on, though. Does this make sense?

3. I really want to get this draft finished by the end of the year. I just can’t countenance the idea of bringing it over into 2014. Normally, when I am determined like this, I just knuckle down and get it done. Normally. But something – alors! – is not normal, these days.

It seems as though the story has become turgid, and floppy, and bland. It seems like my words are banal and meaningless and ‘seen it all before.’ Perhaps this is a side-effect of having had such a forced intimacy with the work for the past six weeks or so; maybe I simply need a break from it, and a change of focus.

But, at the same time, I don’t want a break from it. I want to finish it. I want to get through it, because I’m afraid that if I leave it alone too long I won’t ever see it through, and that would be breaking the first rule – the most important rule – of writing, which is: Finish Your Work. You can’t do a second draft of an incomplete first draft, so grinding to a halt now would be, in terms of Emmeline and Thing and their story, a disaster.

I believe there’s potential in this story. I really love the characters, and I like how the plot has, to a large extent, woven itself around them. It has taken a few unexpected turns, and ideas have suggested themselves to me as I wrote, which is an exhilarating feeling. But now I’m coming close to the End – I’m within 10,000 words of the conclusion to this story, by any rational calculation – and Endings have always been hard for me.

I read a book recently (a review will be posted in a couple of weeks’ time) which was a flight of extraordinary fancy. It did a few things which irritated me, namely introducing characters at the last minute who happen to have just the right power to get the protagonist out of a sticky situation, relying a little on coincidence and ‘extraordinary strokes of luck’ (my teeth go on edge when I read a phrase like this), but it did one other thing, which taught me – or perhaps, reminded me of – an important lesson. It demonstrated the power of a free and full imagination. This particular book went places which no other children’s book I’ve ever read has gone, and I found that refreshing and exciting.

It made me wonder why I constantly clamp down on my own imagination, telling myself that a scene in whatever I’m working on couldn’t possibly happen – it’s too far-fetched, and not realistic enough, and nobody would ever believe it.

Image: badideatshirts.com

Image: badideatshirts.com

But isn’t that sort of the point?

I’m not saying that child readers will believe any old rubbish, because – of course – I am passionately aware that isn’t true. But what they need are books which explore the limits of what a writer can imagine. They want to read things they’ve never read before, and they want to be surprised, and they want to be gripped, and they want to care about the characters. They want to be amused, probably more than anything else. They want descriptions which are good enough, and clear enough, that they seem effortlessly done; at the same time, these descriptions cannot be allowed to get in the way of their reading enjoyment, or stop them imagining themselves in the place of the hero. They want a world which is internally logical and consistent, which holds together and doesn’t break any of its own rules – but, after that, if you want to bring in talking elephants or pink trees or whatever it is, and they make sense in the world you’ve written, then there’s no reason why you should hesitate. Yet – when it comes to some of my own more ‘out-there’ ideas, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Why is applying the lessons I’ve learned from years of reading, enjoying and dissecting children’s books such a challenging thing?

Every day I sit down at this book, I spend the first hour or two unpicking most of what I wrote the previous day. Progress is painfully slow. I am getting there – and I hope I’ll make it before my ‘deadline’ hits – but I hope I’ll remember to give myself the space I need to let the story live. I’ll have to remind myself not to be afraid of where the story wants to go, and to give it the freedom to do what it wants to do. I have to trust myself to handle it.

Otherwise, I think the boulder’s going to start rolling back so fast that I won’t be able to stop it, and it’ll crush me to a pulp.

And nobody wants to see that, right?