Tag Archives: literature

While the Sun Shines

And so, just in time for July, I’m back from a busy weekend spent at the inaugural Hay Festival Kells. Happy new week, happy new month, and hope you’ve missed me a little – but not too much. How’ve you all been? It’s great to be back.

Thank GOODNESS you're back! Image: ourpeacepath.com

Thank GOODNESS you’re back!
Image: ourpeacepath.com

You know, I used to think that being surrounded by books would be the best thing ever. I mean, ever. Better than being surrounded by piles of money or rivers of gold or whatever else you might want to think of. Lakes of beer, possibly. Anyway, now, I know it’s true. From Friday morning to yesterday evening, that’s pretty much exactly the situation I found myself in. Except it was even better than I’d imagined, because my husband was there, which always makes a fun thing even more fun. Also, as well as all the books, we had plenty of historical-stroke-archaeological things to look at, too, on account of Kells being well over a thousand years old, all told.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more amazing, do you know what the most exciting and wonderful bit, out of all the exciting and wonderful bits this weekend held, was? We got to see this lady here:

Lesser intellects (i.e. everybody!) cower before her! Image: guardian.co.uk

Lesser intellects (i.e. everybody!) cower before her!
Image: guardian.co.uk

I still can’t quite believe I managed to find myself in the same room as Jeanette Winterson, for it is she in the wonderful image above. But it happened. And all for the rock-bottom bargain sum of €8.00. How cool is that?

Jeanette Winterson gave a talk on Friday evening, one of the definite highlights of the festival overall, where she spoke about her writing life and her childhood and read some sections from her recent novel ‘Why Be Happy When you Could Be Normal?’; my husband, who has never read a word of her work, was pretty much won over by the charming warmth of her presence and the power of her prose (well, at least he was on Friday evening – I’m not sure how long the effect lasted.) I think he may even read one of her books, but whisper it in case he gets spooked. He doesn’t generally ‘do’ fiction, so I’ve tried to sell ‘Why Be Happy…’ to him on the grounds that it’s pretty much an autobiography, and largely non-fiction. I’ll wear him down, never fear.

After the dizzy heights of a Jeanette Winterson reading, then, the weekend had a lot to live up to – it managed admirably, of course. Saturday was spent going from pop-up bookshop to pop-up bookshop, wherein several gems were unearthed; most of the bookshops were selling second-hand books, however, which you may remember me spouting off about only the other day here on the blog. I managed to keep my purchases to a minimum – for me, at least – and I did my best to buy sensibly and with conscience, bearing in mind that all the money raised through second-hand book sales was going to some form of charity. I hope I managed to strike the appropriate balance, most of the time.

Hay Festival Kells also showed me an important truth about my marriage, believe it or not. I’ve never really had cause to wonder whether my husband and I are a good match, but just in case there was any chance that a hint of doubt could ever start to grow in my mind, this weekend put paid to it. We are, of course, two peas in one pod. Nothing tests a union more than spending hours doing something that other people would probably find deathly boring, and not only enjoying it, but completely losing track of time while enjoying it – and not even caring. We spent hours trawling through books, completely happy to beaver away – he in the non-fiction sections, I up to my eyes in the children’s, usually – and topped all that off with trips to each of the town’s historical sites. Kells was founded by monks in the eighth or ninth century, so it has plenty of those. We spent time in the house of St Colmcille, rebuilt in the eleventh century (and absolutely amazing to look at – the stonework is mindblowing), and we gazed upon the huge Market Cross, a Celtic cross probably made in the tenth century and re-erected in the seventeenth by no less a figure than Dean Jonathan Swift. I didn’t learn until after I’d visited it that it was used as a gallows during the 1798 Rebellion; on reflection, I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time.

I may never have mentioned this before, but I’m addicted to cemeteries – not in a ghoulish way, but in a historical-enthusiast way. My husband isn’t always as intrigued as I am, but he’s usually happy to let me have my fix. This weekend he showed great forbearance and patience, for Kells is full of historical burial grounds; he didn’t once complain, but just dived in and joined me in my explorations (further proof that he is the man for me, I think.) I love looking at old tombstones, admiring the workmanship of the lettering, marvelling at the age of the burial, wondering about the people who’ve passed away and what their lives were like. I do, admittedly, tend to get quite emotional at times, particularly when I encounter graves wherein entire families are interred, and/or a list of children’s ages are spelled out on the headstone. Sadly, this is not uncommon, particularly during times of plague or famine, to which Ireland is no stranger. One of the sites we visited was a Famine graveyard – I’m using the capitalised form because I’m talking about the Great Famine of the 1840s here – and it was, pretty much, a blank field with a stone cross memorial in it. No markers exist for individual burials, no gravestones, no names. I admit I wept, and I prayed for the souls of those who’d died.

It’s amazing to think the Famine happened something like 170 years ago, but the pain of it still sears across the heart of Ireland. Anyway.

So, we trudged home yesterday evening with our books and our thoughts in tow, and now we’re facing into another week. My husband has a few more days holiday from work, and I’m trying to spend as much time with him as possible while still thinking about everything that’s on my schedule for this week and this month – more competitions, more entries, more agency submissions, more ideas to sketch out, more dreams to form and shape and plan for – more amazing things ahead, I hope.

I hope you’re looking forward to July, and that you’re planning holidays or thinking of taking some time out. I recommend going to a book festival, you know, just in case you’re looking for something to do…

Image: rte.ie

Image: rte.ie

‘Cinnamon Toast’ and a Book Review*

Behold the loveliness of this book cover:

Hypnotic, isn't it?Image: amazon.ca

Hypnotic, isn’t it?
Image: amazon.ca

I read this book over the long weekend, and it wasn’t a second before time. I’ve been waiting for it to come out for several months (it’s so hard to wait for books!), but it was more than worth it. It’s the kind of book which turns its reader into a really rude so-and-so, a person who’s unable to talk to anyone or take part in anything that doesn’t involve their faces being stuck into their book. So, apologies to anyone who might have tried to speak to me while this book was anywhere within grabbing distance. I probably didn’t hear you.

The book (Janet E. Cameron‘s debut novel, ‘Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World’) is set in 1987, in a small town in Nova Scotia. We meet Stephen Shulevitz, a boy who spends his early years living with his parents in a hippie commune, dealing with their unusual relationship with one another as well as with him. At the age of eight, he moves to small-town Riverside with his mother and begins to attend regular school, where he suffers due to his perceived ‘snottiness’, or superiority, over the other children. Of course, Stephen has no intention of elevating himself above his classmates. He simply sees the world differently, has been educated differently up to this point in his life, and finds it hard to adjust. His parents separate, and we read of the sometimes poignant relationship between Stephen and his mother. There is a lot of love between them, but on occasion it fails to find its way to the surface. The book basically takes us through Stephen’s life as he negotiates his family difficulties (including re-establishing a relationship with his estranged father), makes friends, makes mistakes, deals with his Ukrainian, Russian and Jewish heritage, and falls in love. And all this before he’s even finished school.

The book begins with a scene from Stephen’s teenage years on the night he realises he’s fallen in love with the ‘wrong’ person – this is the ‘End of the World’ of the title. The story flips gently back and forth between the pages of his life as he tries to explain to us how he got to this point, and why, exactly, he fell in love. The book is narrated by Stephen himself in a very effective ‘memoir’ style; at times, he feels he’s ‘left out too much’, and he’ll go back to fill in the gaps. We are brought from the ‘present day’ back to important scenes from his childhood – the day his father left, the day he meets his beloved (and the circumstances behind their becoming friends in the first place), among many others – which gives a very realistic feel to proceedings. Despite this, the story doesn’t flinch from telling us all about Stephen’s mistakes. When he messes up, he’s self-aware enough to tell us about it without attempting to explain it away. One particular episode, when he (almost without meaning to) betrays his best friend, had me in tears. I wasn’t sure if it was because I felt terrible for Stephen, or because I could relate so much to his friend (Lana); perhaps it was a bit of both. In any case, it was moving and real and completely believable. Despite the fact that it’s set in Canada (and there are significant differences between their ‘High School’ experience and ours here in Ireland), the emotions, insecurities and relationships were so effective that the story immersed me completely. For the length of time I spent reading this book, I was an awkward Canadian teenager in the 198os (despite the fact that the real me in 1987 was a greasy kid wearing glitter-boots, a sideways ponytail and a Jason Donovan t-shirt).

The characterisation in this book is excellent – even the minor characters are memorable. I found it interesting that the most fleshed-out and ‘real’ character in the story is the person with whom Stephen falls in love. This person’s failings and flaws, as well as their heroism, protectiveness and kindness are all described with such tender touches that by the end of the story I was a little bit in love with this character myself. It surprised me, because the love-interest is full of anger, and at times the hatred and darkness they exude oozes out of the pages. At one point, they hurt Stephen very badly and his life is put at risk, but despite this, Stephen’s love doesn’t waver and, as a result, neither did mine. I understood the character’s reactions, and I felt I knew where they were coming from – product of a broken home, left to take care of a much younger sister, overlooked by teachers and allowed to fall through the cracks at school – so their rage seems natural and even understandable. I was left feeling sympathetic and sorry for this character, as well as full of admiration for Janet Cameron, the book’s author – how right it is that the person into whose psyche we are given the most insight is the one with whom our narrator is in love. Who else does he know more deeply?

I enjoyed everything about this book, from its structure to its narrative voice to its evocation of a world at once totally alien, and completely familiar, to my experience. I have been the character of Lana, also in love with the ‘wrong’ person, feeling too large for comfort, not quite fitting in with the other girls; I felt such affinity with Stephen’s mother Maryna, dealing with her own memories of a hard childhood with an unforgiving father and the cultural baggage she carries, not because I’ve experienced this myself but because Ms. Cameron describes it so well. I admired Stephen for his bravery and constancy, and I hated his father, Stanley, for the way he treated his son. The book deals unflinchingly with drug use, AIDS (particularly the fear felt around the topic during the 1980s), sexuality, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, and rape – so in some ways, it may not be for the faint-hearted. But if you like books which touch your heart and make you think, books which evoke a time and place so skilfully that opening them feels like stepping into a time machine, and books which deal with the Great Universal of unrequited love, then this is a book worth reading.

Image: frontroomcinema.com

Image: frontroomcinema.com


*In the interests of full disclosure, I feel I should say that the author of this book is someone with whom I communicate on Twitter; this has not affected the impartiality of my review, however.

Questions, Questions…

One of my regular readers and commenters, Ania, wrote this blog post yesterday and asked me if I would answer some of her questions. I’m sorry to say I don’t have time to answer them all, but I’ll do my best to answer some of them in today’s post. I’m going to take a random sample of the questions and try to answer in as much detail as possible.

So, hold onto your hollyhocks, people. Get ready to find out what I keep in my handbag!

What is your zodiac sign? Do you match its description?

My zodiac sign is Scorpio, as I was born one long-ago November. It’s apparently a Sun sign, which is a strange thought considering I was born during the winter! Scorpios are, as far as I know, supposed to be secretive, passionate, jealous, possessive and (ahem) rather amorous in their outlook on life. I’m not sure about the amorous part, but I know I have exhibited most of the other traits at various points in my history on planet Earth so far.

It looks just like me!Image: compatible-astrology.com

It looks just like me!
Image: compatible-astrology.com

What song(s) would you choose as a soundtrack to your life?

Well, this is a tough question for me, because I love music so much. Choosing one song would be impossible, and even choosing a top 10 would be hard. But the first ones that come to mind are:

‘Immigrant Song’ – Led Zeppelin : This song makes me appreciate the Viking heritage which I’m sure I have. It’s a lot of fun, and it also has a killer beat. But then, I pretty much love all Led Zeppelin’s songs!

‘Unknown Legend’ – Neil Young: This song is one of many that reminds me of my dad, which is another reason to love it. But truly, I love every single Neil Young song I’ve ever heard, and he’s my all-time favourite artist.

‘Time Has Told Me’ – Nick Drake: This song kept me going during a very hard period in my life. I love it because it reminds me that things will get better and never to give up hope, but that’s just personal to me. The lyrics don’t really reflect that message! Again, I love all of Nick Drake’s tragically small output. He’s wonderful.

‘A Case of You’ – Joni Mitchell: I can’t explain the effect that ‘A Case of You’ has on me. Every note and every word of it makes my skin tingle. I love the song, and the entire album ‘Blue’, and most of what I’ve heard of Joni Mitchell. She’s a legend.

‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ – Sandy Denny: Sandy Denny was the best singer in the world. Ever. End of story. This song changed my life, and I adore every note of it.

‘May You Never’ – John Martyn: Just a gorgeous song from a wonderful singer/songwriter, sadly also gone from the world too soon.

If I answered this question every day, I’m sure I’d come up with entirely different songs, every day. Truly, I love so many thousands of songs that I’d never be finished answering this question!

Who are the most important people in your life?

Well, this one is easy. My husband, my parents, my brother, my parents-in-law, my brother-in-law, and my ‘sisters-in-law’. Then, I have about ten million aunts, uncles and cousins, as we’re a good Irish family. And then, of course, I have a huge helping of friends, none of whom I could live without. So, a lot of people are important to me, and I love them all. I’m a lucky girl.

What’s your favourite book/writer?

This is like the question about music. Every day, my top 5 favourite books changes! So, today’s favourites are:

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman (or, anything by Neil Gaiman)

Lords and Ladies – Terry Pratchett (or, anything by Terry Pratchett. I’m seeing a pattern here.)

The Earthsea Quartet – Ursula K. Le Guin (okay, so technically four books, but you’ll have to allow me that indulgence. It’s Le Guin!)

The Once and Future King – T.H. White

The Passion – Jeanette Winterson (or, indeed, surprise surprise, anything by Jeanette Winterson.)

I’m also going to include The Canterbury Tales by my hero, Geoffrey Chaucer, even though it’s technically a poem, not a book. But I love it. Only in the original Middle English, of course.

What do you carry in your bag?

Well, it varies, but normally I carry a rucksack-type bag, as I’m not very girly. So, I usually have at least three paperback books, my purse, a hairbrush, a bus timetable, an assortment of tissues, lots of receipts, some hand-cream for my eczema, a pen (usually not working), a notebook, and a plastic bag to put everything into if (or, rather, when) it rains. The glamour of my life is just overwhelming, isn’t it? I should have my own style magazine.

What countries would you like to visit?

So many I can’t remember them all. I haven’t been to very many places so far! My dream destinations would include: Iceland, Scandinavia (anywhere – ideally all the Scandinavian countries), Belgium (to visit my friend Tine), Spain, Italy, Hungary (I’d love to see Budapest), Canada, and Antarctica. If Antarctica counts as a country.

If you compare yourself five years ago to yourself now, what has changed?

I’m not working as an English tutor any more, and I’ve had another job in that period too; I’m married now, but I hadn’t met my husband five years ago (though I was about to meet him, which is a happy thought); I’m following my dream in life now (i.e. I’m writing), whereas five years ago I wouldn’t have had the confidence or support network in place to help me to achieve this dream. So, a lot of positive changes have happened.

So, I hope that’s good enough for Ania, and that I haven’t bored the pants off the rest of you. I’ll try to be a little less self-absorbed in tomorrow’s blog post!

Image: thewritersadvice.com

Image: thewritersadvice.com


Monday, Monday

Happy Monday, if such a thing is possible.

calvin and hobbes

I hope good weekends were had by all. I spent mine not doing very much, partly due to the fact that my husband is a bit under the weather, but also due to the fact that we were both exhausted, and a weekend of keeping a low profile just seemed like the way to go. I am feeling a bit cabin-feverish this morning, however – so, as soon as the sun comes up (any minute now!) I’ll head outside and get some fresh air. I wasn’t able to bring myself to go for a walk yesterday – slothing about the place seemed like a good idea at the time, but I regret it now.

I did manage to get some work done on the book, though, and I remain mystified by the fact that I’m finding so much in it, still, that needs immediate remedial work. I’m only about one-third of the way through, but I hope I’ll be finished by the end of this week. It’s incredible that all the things I’m spotting now were things I missed in previous re-reads, but it just proves the point that leaving your book alone for a little while between edits is the best thing you can do. I don’t think I’ll be changing anything major, structurally – I think it’s pretty much the way I want it to be in that regard – but I guess nothing is out of bounds, really. I’ve realised that editing can – and probably should – be a painful and extensive process, mainly because I also spent some time this weekend watching videos (well, they’re probably not ‘videos’, per se. I’m showing my age! They’re probably ‘podcasts’, or some such) on the brilliant website, http://www.writing.ie. Carlo Gébler, Sinéad Moriarty and Declan Hughes – three Irish authors – share their insights into writing, and the writing process, and their tricks and tips for overcoming common problems. I’d really recommend checking them out, if writing is your thing. I found them immensely useful. I was, however, a bit terrified by Carlo Gébler’s insight into editing – he recommended looking through your book to find entire sections which can be cut out, then re-reading to find chapters to cut, then re-reading to find paragraphs you can cut, and so on until you’re down to words. At that rate, I wonder how you’d have any book left at all, but what do I know. Perhaps he was just being descriptive and dramatic! His point, of course, is that nothing is sacred. The part of your book which you love the most will often be the first bit that an editor will rip apart – I’m sure, if I ever get to the point where another pair of eyes look over this WiP of mine, that this will happen to me, too.

Sometimes, when I’m doing other things and not thinking about my book at all (at least not consciously thinking about it – I don’t think my brain ever really lets it go properly), an image or a scene or even the actual words I’ve used at various points in the text will come back to me, and I’ll cringe at their terribleness. I’ll berate myself for using such a cheesy phrase, or for making such a horrible sentence, or creating such a ridiculous scene. And then I’ll read it over again, and realise it’s not as bad as I remembered. I wonder why this happens, sometimes, but I’ve learned not to worry about it any more. One thing I’ve learned over the last few months is that no matter how weird your thoughts get when you’re writing a book, that someone, somewhere, has experienced just the same thing. I live in hope that I’m not the only person who does this strange self-criticism.

As well as my editing, I also managed to read ‘Arthur Quinn and the World Serpent’, by Alan Early. This book has been on my radar for a while, because it’s set in Dublin (yay!) and it involves Norse mythology (double yay!) I love books that connect Ireland to the history of the Viking world, because I think the Irish role in the Viking story is too often overlooked. The book is also quite topical, as it takes the building of an underground railway in Dublin as a central plot point. At the moment, work is just beginning in Dublin on a light rail track which will run through the city centre, so it’s interesting to read the book in that light. The story is great – it has a strong core concept (the World Serpent, or Jormungard, has been lying dormant under Dublin for a thousand years, waiting to be woken), and I liked the characters. The author makes great use of Loki, the Trickster god, who can take on any appearance he likes, and I really enjoyed the author’s use of a theme-park which he calls ‘The Viking Experience’, particularly at the end of his story. There is a real Viking theme-park (of sorts) in Dublin, and the next time I visit I’ll be taking a very close look at some of the exhibits, now that I know how this book ends! I’m looking forward to the second book in the series, which involves the wolf Fenrir – and if the series continues the way it should, the third book will deal with Loki’s most terrifying child, the goddess Hel, who is half-alive and half-dead, and guards the Norse underworld. Let’s hope that’s the way the author intends to go! This book is great, and perfectly pitched at children from about the age of eight or so.

Right. Well, the sun is nearly up, so it’s time to make good on my promise. I’d better go and pull on my walking shoes, and get some air into these decrepit old lungs. Have a great day, all.


Image credit: hepatitiscnewdrugs.blogspot.com (via Google Images)

Some Saturday Reading

Yesterday (a little ahead of schedule) I finished my second draft of the WiP. It’s by no means ready for public consumption yet, but it’s that little bit closer to being how I want it to be. The end is still not right – it happens too fast, and almost seems like an anti-climax after the story that comes before it, and I still have some work to do with my protagonist (though she’d like to say thanks to everyone for asking after her, and wants to let you all know she’s much happier now that she gets to kick some butt).

So, I thought maybe I’d write a quick post about what I’ve been reading, and some of what’s on my to-be-read list. I’ve just finished ‘What’s Left of Me’ by Kat Zhang, which I really enjoyed, even if the author is so absurdly young that it’s made me wonder what I’ve been doing with my life.

It’s a wonderful concept – the book asks how would you cope if there was more than one soul, more than one consciousness, in your body? In Zhang’s imagined world, people are born with twin souls and they spend their early lives inseparably entwined. After a certain age, though, doctors begin to get worried if one soul doesn’t prove itself to be ‘recessive’ and begin to fade away; if this doesn’t happen naturally, children are brought for treatment to ‘help’ one of their souls to disappear. As is made clear throughout the story, each soul is a distinct personality – it’s not a case of someone hearing a voice in their head, or anything like that. The main characters in this book are Addie and Eva, two unique young women who happen to share one body. It’s a book that asks hard questions like what it means to be a human person without any power, not even the power to move your own body, and what rights you should expect; it asks questions about psychiatric care, and how doctors with no experience of the condition they’re treating can possibly know what’s best for a patient. It made me wonder about individuality, and how it would feel to be inside a body which may be doing things you find abhorrent, but over which you have no control. The writing is good – it’s clear, and the plot moves along quickly. At times I did feel as though the larger issues were somewhat glossed over – or, more exactly, I felt that the author didn’t make the best of the wonderful ideas on show – but this book is the first in a series, so it remains to be seen what she’ll do with the characters. I’d recommend it. It has tinges of Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’, but is a very different book in terms of style.

I also recently read ‘Wolf’ by Gillian Cross – this is not a new book, so it might be hard to find. The edition I have dates from 1992, and I’m not sure if there are more recent editions.

It’s definitely the kind of book I like – unique, original, a bit crazy, peopled with memorable characters and a plot which seems completely unfettered in places, giving the story a sense of freedom and unpredictability. Our protagonist is a young girl who lives with her grandmother, except for occasional breaks where she is sent to live with her mother. These breaks are always preceded by a strange midnight visitor to her grandmother’s home, and the girl (Cassy) isn’t sure who the visitor is. The book shows its age in terms of technology – telephone boxes, no internet, and so on – which is great for readers of my vintage, but even so the story throbs with life, exploring the meaning of family and love, and what it means to not be sure of who you are. It’s excellent – if you can find it, I recommend it.

I also read ‘The Emerald Atlas’ by John Stephens not so long ago; I’d had this one on my radar for a long time.

It was good, too – a nice long, complicated, twisty storyline designed to get the neurons firing. It involves time travel, three siblings who must unravel the mystery of their missing parents, and figure out how to use a strange book with incredible powers in order to save an entire village from an evil witch and her undead warriors. I did like this book, but not as much as I thought I would – some things irritated me, like the fact that the author decided, conveniently, that two versions of the same object can exist at the same time. As in, if someone travels back through time clutching the mysterious book, which also exists in the past, that both versions of the book can exist for about half an hour before one of them will disappear. That annoyed me because I thought it was a cop-out, of sorts! I really liked the writing, though, and I loved the siblings’ relationship with one another. So, overall, this one is worth a try. It’s the first part in a series, too, so perhaps things will improve.

I picked up Frances Hardinge’s ‘Twilight Robbery’ last weekend, so I’m looking forward to getting into that. I read the previous book to this one, ‘Fly By Night’, a few years ago and wasn’t too sure about it, but the writing is good enough to entice me to give it another go. I also have ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’ by Michael Chabon on my to-read shelf; this, despite the title, is not a children’s book. I do occasionally dip my toes into grown-up literature, too!

I’m off to enjoy some words that I didn’t sweat and agonise over, for a change – I hope you find some time to read and/or write this weekend, too. Whatever you do, enjoy and take care.

Issues in YA Literature

Hello, and happy Friday.

Even though I didn’t work on my WiP yesterday due to ill-health, I did spend my time doing useful things, including reading other blogs and keeping up to date with current thought in the YA world.  Turns out there are lots of burning topics to think about, but the one I want to write about today just stuck in my head, and thoughts started to congeal around it.  That topic is social issues – race, sexuality, disability, poverty – and how they are dealt with in Young Adult books.

My thought processes on this started yesterday when I read a blog article about race in Young Adult literature, and how the characters, particularly the main characters, tend to be white, or (even worse) are just assumed to be white.  I’m afraid I don’t know yet how to link things properly on my blog, but if you want to copy and paste the following into your browser, you’ll get to the article:


The blogger was asking the question ‘why does this happen?’ and, unfortunately, came to the conclusion that ‘whiteness sells’; in other words, that putting pictures of pretty white girls on the cover of the book will help to sell it.  I thought the article was excellent, and timely – and very, very sad.

The blogger mentions the Twitter backlash a few years ago when a character in The Hunger Games was portrayed by a black actress when the book came to be turned into a movie.  It seemed that some people couldn’t get their head around one of the most important players in the story (Rue) not having the same white skin as the protagonists.  In fact, the character is described as black when we first meet her in the book, but it is such an unimportant part of her that it soon just becomes incidental; it becomes just another part of her, like her singing voice and her ability to climb, and her gentle compassion.  She’s probably my favourite character, not only in The Hunger Games but in the trilogy overall; it made zero difference to me what colour her skin was. I remember the furore around race when the movie came out, and I remember how disgusted I was by it.

By using the words ‘unimportant’ and ‘incidental’, by the way, I don’t mean to downplay the importance or significance of these characteristics, and I’m certainly not trying to belittle or disparage ideas of racial equality.  I don’t mean to imply that the fact of the character’s blackness is not significant – in fact, ideas of race, sexuality, gender and disability are very important to me as a person, and as a writer.  What I mean is, the fact that the character of Rue has black skin makes no difference to her character in this story.  Her compassion, her kindness, her talents, her loving heart, her bravery, and her beautiful spirit all have nothing to do with the colour of her skin; this is why the author doesn’t mention it again after our first meeting with the character.  She’s not brave because she’s black; she’s just a brave person who also happens to be black.  The protagonist, Katniss, is also a brave person – not because she’s white, she just also happens to be white.  It’s noteworthy that Suzanne Collins doesn’t really dwell on physical characteristics or descriptions in her books – we’re not constantly reminded of Katniss’ race, or the physical appearance of any character, to the best of my recollection.  People in these books are just people, and I think that’s important.

I then started to think about Ursula Le Guin, and the way she has always dealt with race and bodily difference in her novels.  For Le Guin, characters are nearly always described as being brown, or dark – it seems like everyone, more or less, is the same colour, but that colour is not necessarily white.  Again, like Collins, skin colour is not important to characterisation in Le Guin – it’s an incidental, barely-mentioned thing. The reader is given enough detail to fix the character in their mind and then we just get on with the story, with nobody paying any heed to what colour a person is. Even gender and sexuality, in Le Guin’s work, is seen as being fluid – distinctions are made unimportant. I’m thinking of The Left Hand of Darkness here, where it’s impossible to even describe a character as being ‘male’ or ‘female’ – everyone in this book is both, and neither, male or female. They can choose a gender at certain times in their lives (known as ‘kemmer’), and temporarily become one or the other, but for the most part gender is unimportant to who the characters are. I’ve always admired Le Guin’s treatment of people in this novel – even the idea of pronouns, and how to refer to people, was problematic but she overcame it through some very skilful use of language.  Sometimes characters who are usually referred to with male pronouns are described as women, and vice-versa; sometimes, pronouns are just ignored.

I also began to think about disability in Young Adult literature, and found myself stuck for examples of characters who are disabled. More often than not, in these books, protagonists are more specially gifted – stronger, faster, quicker to learn – than their contemporaries, and it’s rare to come across characters, let alone protagonists, who are just unexceptional, or who have a disability. There’s also a risk in literature that the author will decide to ‘cure’ a disabled character, or bestow some extra-special talent on them to ‘make up for’ their disability; though this might be done with a good heart, it’s important to remember that it can be seen as insulting by readers with disabilities.  Why is it so hard, I wonder, to imagine a character who not only lives their life perfectly well, but also excels at whatever it is they choose to do, and all this while disabled?

It would be wonderful, I think, if characters in novels could be just seen as ‘people’, regardless of their colour, gender, sexuality or disabilities.  These things are important, of course, and they will affect how a person sees themselves and how their world works, but they shouldn’t make a difference to whether or not they’re a good person, and certainly not to whether or not they’re a good character, about whom we enjoy reading. It would be wonderful if readers didn’t automatically assume that every character is white, straight and privileged, and if book covers (as the other blogger suggested) didn’t reflect a homogeneous, all-white picture. I certainly hope we never witness another ‘Rue is black?’ debacle, because – surely – at this stage, it should make no difference.

What are your thoughts on these issues? I’m particularly interested to know if anyone has any recommendations for books I could read with disabled characters, or books which deal with race or gender in interesting ways.  Let me know what you think!


Hello, all.

I’m not feeling very well today. I’m exhausted, and a bit achy, so I’m going to have to take it easy, even though I’d much rather be working.  I’m reading ‘The Poison Throne’ by Celine Kiernan (I’m not finished it yet, but even so it gets a huge ‘recommended’ sticker from me!) and it’s inspiring me so much that I’m itching to get back to my own book. But, sadly, I know I just can’t do it.

I’m hoping that tomorrow I’ll feel better, and that the Lemsip I’m imbibing at a furious rate will keep me going. It might even be a good thing to be forced to take a little time out, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. I’ve just been reading a wonderful blog post which talks about the importance of taking your time and not being impatient (a difficult thing, for writers): http://ermurray.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/tortoises-live-longer-than-cheetahs/   The point being made here is not so much to look after your health for fear of burnout, but to take the time to craft and hone your work – but it’s a good point, regardless!

I think I’m finally realising I need to look after my health, as well as maybe – once in a while – taking it easy and understanding that you don’t have to do everything in your whole life simultaneously. I’m the kind of person who likes to push myself as hard as possible, but sometimes your body just says, ‘Ah, here. Time for a break, now.’ It’s important to listen to that little voice!

So, we’ll talk tomorrow. Till then, stay well and happy.

Ramblings of a Possible Paranoiac

So, without further ado, I am back in the blogging seat.  Hello!

I had to make some trips to Dublin yesterday and the day before, which explains my absence from the blog; in contrast with the post I made about the city being dank and depressing a few days ago, though, I was glad to perceive a slight improvement in the overall mood of the place.  Perhaps the spirit of a city has a lot to do with the weather and time of day when you make your visit, not to mention your reasons for being there in the first place.  Naturally, if you’re off to visit a friend (as I was yesterday), the whole place will seem brighter.  In any case, whatever the reason, I enjoyed my time in the city a bit more over the past few days; I was, however, still very glad to get home.


But now for the paranoia, as promised.   If you own a tinfoil hat, you may wish to don it at this point.

Whenever I’m working on something, no matter what it is, I feel at a certain point during the writing of it that everywhere I look, I see my idea cropping up.  No matter how closely guarded my thoughts are, or how jealously I clutch my metaphorical cards to my metaphorical chest, I can’t help but think: ‘This has all been done.  I’m flogging a dead horse with this idea.’  Does anyone else know how this feels?  The core concept of my WiP was, at the time I first thought of it, quite different to anything else that was leading the market.  In a vampire- and werewolf-saturated world, I thought I’d come up with something just that little bit different.  However, now that I’m finally getting around to writing it, and coming towards the end of draft one, everywhere I look I see similar concepts popping up.  Judging by how long it takes for an idea to go to a published book on a shelf, this trend has been brewing for a couple of years already.  I fear that by the time my own work might be anywhere near ready to bring to the market, things will have moved on again.

Who sets the trends, anyway?  How do they form, and how do they build the momentum to become a wave instead of a drop in the ocean?  I remember when I first approached my old university to undertake my dissertation, I pitched an idea along the lines of ‘Old English meets Angela Carter’, thinking ‘wow, this’ll blow their socks off’; I was met with a disappointed face and my head of subject telling me ‘oh no – not you, too.’  Apparently, practically every applicant she’d met with that year wanted to write about Angela Carter in some way or another.  So much for me thinking I was being utterly unique.  But the funny thing was – I hadn’t known that all my contemporaries were also interested in studying Angela Carter, I had no connections to any other applicant that year, and the Angela Carter link applied across all the variants of English studies into which one could undertake a research dissertation – Carter was being studied by my fellow medievalists, as well as by modern American literature scholars, Anglo-Irish literature scholars, and so on.  For some undefinable reason, she was just on everyone’s mind, all at the same time.

As I came to the end of my research dissertation, too, everywhere I looked I saw boundaries (which was the main point of interest in my work) – everyone seemed to be writing about them, thinking about them and making TV programmes about them.  The concept I had spent three years sweating over now seemed to be part of pop culture, and yesterday’s news.  It was almost disheartening enough to make me give up.  My supervisor said that it was part of being so invested in something – I was thinking about boundaries in texts and culture all the time, so it was natural that I’d see them everywhere I looked – but I always felt it was more than that.  I carried on, and completed the dissertation, and managed to get the degree without being accused of hopping on a boundary bandwagon, but it really did appear that my ideas were not as groundbreaking as I’d hoped.  My once incisive arguments sank into a morass of thoughts contained in a mountain of other dissertations, all vaguely similar, and that was upsetting.

Perhaps it is just as my supervisor said, and it’s true that people will always be more sensitive to ideas similar to their own, because they’re constantly thinking about them.  It’s also true, though, that it’s heartbreaking to see other books with a very similar theme appearing on the shelves just as you’re trying to bring your own to a conclusion – naturally, you’re going to assume ‘why would I bother to continue with this?’  Well, of course I’m bothering to continue because I love the idea, and I love the characters, and I have a story that wants to be told.  Whether anyone will buy it at the end of the day or not is something I have to be indifferent to, in some ways; I can’t let it have much effect on the creative process.

So, am I a rambling paranoiac, or has anyone else experienced this?  I’d love to hear about it.  If anyone has any thoughts on trend-setting, too, let’s have them!  It’s seriously something I have never understood, and would value the wisdom of others.  Are we really all just a hive-mind?  Is it possible to be influenced by trends without even being aware of it?  Or am I just a hopeless lunatic?



Protagonists and Readers

Greetings from a cold Ireland.  My brain is jumbled up with thoughts today, and I’m not sure how coherent this blog post will be.  I’ll strive to do my best, however!

I read an excellent blog post on the gender of protagonists in fiction yesterday, and whether child readers respond better to stories where the protagonist is the same gender as themselves.  I’m not quite sure how links work, but I’ll try this and hope it’s not illegal or immoral, or anything: http://steelthistles.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/the-master-maid-role-of-women-and-girls.html This issue interests me because my WiP features a female ‘lead character’, who is not a typical heroine; I have often wondered if she will appeal to boy readers, and I think it’s a vital question to ask.  The author of the blog questions whether boy readers are less likely to engage with a female protagonist than girl readers are to a male protagonist, and I think there might be something in that viewpoint.  I started thinking about female characters in fiction, generally, and why there are so few heroines as opposed to heroes, and whether this is something that needs to be addressed.

This blog post interested me so much that I actually rooted out one of the Middle English romances that I did some research on, years ago, because I remembered there being a wonderful female character in it.  After some rather dusty poking about under the stairs, I eventually found it.  The text is called ‘Ywain and Gawain’, and the character I remembered so well was named Lunet.  A potted summary of the text runs something like: knight goes on a quest, meets a variety of fabulous beasts and wonderful characters; a mysterious girl (possibly a fairy – it’s never fully explained) helps him to win the heart of the woman of his dreams, which he goes on to betray and, hence, lose; knight goes into the wilderness and goes a bit mad for a while, picking up a faithful lion companion on the way; enigmatic girl helps him restore his sanity and win back his wife.  Cue joyful and triumphant conclusion, of course.  It’s one of my favourite texts for many reasons, not least of which is the marvellous lion, but I really love it because of Lunet, the possibly fae-girl, who – while not being the protagonist, exactly – is absolutely vital to the plot.  Without her, the knight would never have won back his lady, they would never have lived together in harmony, and the kingdom wouldn’t have been restored.  Normally, in romances, the standard reward for a female character is marriage – the princess gets her prince (and, by extension, the prince gets her kingdom, but we won’t go there), and the faithful serving lady usually gets married off to a lesser nobleman, and everyone goes home happy.  But Lunet is different.  Lunet is asked what she wants for a reward at the end of the text, and she clearly says something unexpected, because it is described like this:

‘And trew Lunet, the maiden hende./

Was honord ever with ald and ying/

And lifed at hir owin liking;/

Of alkins thing sho has maystri,/

Next the lord and the lady… (lines 4014-4018)

Loosely modernised, this means: ‘And true Lunet, the fair maiden, was honoured for ever among old and young.  She lived just as she pleased, and she had mastery/control over everything, after the lord and the lady.’  She gets (and asks for) no husband, and she is left to live as she wants to.  I can’t stress enough how much this stuck in my mind when I first read it.  It’s so unusual as to be unique, at least in my experience of the medieval romance.  I wondered what happened to this type of female character, and why she crops up so infrequently.

Even in the modern world, with our Katniss Everdeens and our Katsas and Queen Bitterblues, we still struggle to shake off the idea that for a story to end completely, the female characters need to get a man, or get married, or settle down in some way.  For instance, I love ‘The Hunger Games’ books, but one thing that enraged me about the ending was the way Katniss was forced, in a way, to betray her own desires for her future.  I don’t want to give away too much in case you haven’t read it, but when you do, I hope you’ll know what I mean.  It wasn’t enough that she suffered as much as she had, and achieved the great things she’d achieved – she also had to sacrifice something vital, and something she had sworn to herself, because a male character wanted her to.  I can’t help but wish it had been written differently.  I’d love to see more Lunets in literature – heck, I’d even love to see more Wives of Bath!  I know her character is defined by her husbands, too, but she’s the one doing the pursuing.  I don’t think anyone ever told Alysoun of Bath what she could and couldn’t do.

It’s funny that there are characters in medieval literature that seem somewhat more ‘modern’ in their viewpoints than some contemporary heroines.  Of course, though, it’s not as simple as this.  The majority of female characters in medieval texts are either not important at all, or do end up married or otherwise under the control of a male character.  Even in ‘Ywain and Gawain’, you could argue that Lunet is such a singular woman because she has an element of the supernatural about her – it’s like the author couldn’t conceive of a fully human woman who didn’t strive at all times to find a husband.  The ‘romance’ novels we have nowadays didn’t develop in a vacuum; they owe a lot to the medieval romances of the past.  I just can’t help thinking that more boys would read and enjoy books where girls are the main characters if those characters didn’t always have to end up giving away their power at the end of their story.  Maybe those same boy-readers would then go on to become men who would expect women to own their own choices and responsibilities, and who’d accept nothing less.  And wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Less is More

So, this morning, I’m working on a synopsis of the plot of my current piece of work.  I’m entering a competition in a few weeks (one of those ‘find an agent’ type competitions), so I’m obviously pretty anxious to do this correctly and give myself the best shot I can.  The competition requires each entrant to summarise their plot in 300 words or less.  This is a challenge, and no mistake.  I’m sure most people who have ever written creatively felt the same way when it came to this part of the process, and it does help – a little – to know I’m not the only one facing this test.

I’m not 100% finished with the manuscript, but that’s not a problem, as I know exactly where I want the story to go.  So far, I’ve written about 83,000 words, and – for the most part – those words have been effortless and a pleasure.  I’m loving this story, and finding words has never been a problem; that is, except now, when I need to find fewer of them.  It’s really difficult to cut a story down to 300 words, particularly when it’s a story you’ve been thinking about for years, and which you’ve always seen in terms of ‘the bigger picture’ – by which I mean all the back-end detail that only an author knows and loves.  Not only do you, as a writer, know the plot, but you know the characters, their back-stories, their favourite foods and what their childhood dreams used to be, and it’s practically impossible to condense all the life in your words down to a sentence or two.

But this is precisely why you’re asked to do it, of course.

It doesn’t just apply to creative work.  When writing my PhD dissertation, I had to write an Abstract to go with it, for which I had the generous allowance of 500 words.  That was hard.  As interesting (I hope) as the plot of this work-in-progress novel is, at least it is a single story, based around a set of characters, in a world that I created – it’s not an argument, trying to link together twenty or more different stories, made by people at whose mindset I could only guess, as was my PhD.  Stories can always be boiled down to their essential elements – the hero, the quest, the ‘problem’, the journey, the resolution, the antagonist, and so on – but trying to write a clear summation of the stories of multiple texts, as well as showing the central points of my argument, was hard to do in under 500 words.  I did it, though.  It made me understand the necessity of the synopsis, too – I couldn’t possibly expect my examiners to wade through 120,000 words of carefully argued prose before they had any idea what on earth I was talking about.  The Abstract was, in a way, a courtesy to them – a guide to the inner workings of my argument, and a taster for what was to come.  It also made my argument clear to me.  One of the things you’re constantly being asked when you’re undertaking any type of written project is the dreaded question ‘what is it about?’  Being able to explain what it’s about, in a sentence or two, is very useful.  Not only does it mean you can answer the question in ten seconds as opposed to ten minutes, but it also keeps you focused on the core elements of the work you’re doing, which can only help you to bring it to fruition.

Understanding the importance of a plot summary is only half the battle, though.  I’m wondering, this morning, should I leave the end of the story out – in other words, should my plot synopsis end with a cliffhanger question?  I don’t know if I need to go into subplots and minor characters.  I’m not sure how much explanation of the ‘tech’ of my society is needed.  I’m going to have to take a leap of faith on this one, and just do my best, and hopefully I’ll hit the mark.  The worst part of all, the waiting game, is yet to come!  Wish me luck!