Dear Damsels

Dear Damsels

 

child looking out the window of a plane, baby travel
Finn – on a recent journey

 

Today is a big day for journeys.

In a few hours we are setting off for Heathrow and flying to Australia for three months catching up with family and seeing the sunshine. There is a Super moon due and with our two lunatics on board the plane absolutely anything could happen.

And that may well be the seeds for a story another day.

In a nice circularity a story I wrote that happens to include journeying with a baby has been published today over on Dear Damsels .

Do have a read.

Goodreads reviews – November

The Chicken Soup MurderThe Chicken Soup Murder by Maria Donovan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first thing to say about this book is that it is a page turner. I read it in about three sittings over three days. I got captivated early on, not just by the mystery, but also the characters. Maria Donovan brings her well paced suburban mystery to life with a large, closely knit cast of characters and keeps the reader guessing as her young narrator puzzles out new and old mysteries in his life.

Very readable and very memorable.

A Blonde Bengali WifeA Blonde Bengali Wife by Anne Hamilton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 
Journeying with Anne Hamilton gives you the uninitiated Western travellers eye view of Bangladesh. Anne is an unassuming, self depreciating narrator who introduces the reader to people and places with wide eyed humour – usually at her own expense.

As the journey of the book proceeds – through regional villages and city-scape’s of Bangladesh we see Anne fall very genuinely in love with the country and the people.

A great read for arm chair travellers or travel addicts alike.

View all my reviews

A writer’s guide to reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

A writer’s guide to reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

How to write a book like a Nobel prize winner?

What can a close reading of Never Let Me Go, by Nobel Prize in literature winner Kazuo Ishiguro teach you as a Fiction writer? It is a book that I have read and re-read, not in a comfort reading sort of way, but in a this book is haunting me and I like it kind of way. As a reader I am happy to simply immerse myself in the book. As a writer I want to know why it is having this impact on me.

So what is it that Kazuo Ishiguro does when he writes a book? Lets go back to school shall we?

Book cover for Nobel winner Never Let Me Go - by Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go – by Kazuo Ishiguro

Writing tips on Genre:

NLMG fits into the category of Speculative Fiction. Like the other very best works in this genre it uses elements from the present and takes an imaginative leap; and by doing so allows us to take a critical look at ourselves. First published in 2005 – the novel is set in a version of Britain in the 1990’s. The issues it delves into, much like The Handmaid’s Tale and Blade Runner make it very much a story of today and tomorrow.

A writer’s reading of Never Let Me Go:

Anne Charnock author image
Anne Charnock

Anne Charnock’s debut novel, A Calculated Life, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick and Kitschies Golden Tentacle Awards. I asked her about how reading the novel had influenced her as a writer.

Never Let Me Go is a close observation of childhood and a deeply upsetting book questioning what Ishiguro describes as the ancient question: What is it to be human? I read the novel as soon as it was released because I was already an Ishiguro fan and I was intrigued that he’d ventured into speculative fiction. At the time, I’d substantially drafted my first novel, A Calculated Life, and I was anxious about how I would pitch it to a literary agent or publisher. My novel seemed out of step with other SF novels being published around that time. But reading Never Let Me Go gave me a confidence boost because it was character-driven, introspective, a coming-of-age story set in a in a recognisable world, as was my novel.

A Calculated Life book cover. By Anne Charnock
A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock

Writing tips on Theme:

The subject matter for Never Let Me Go – the ethics of cloning and the nature of what it is to be human. Which is fascinating, but not in itself unique. My obsession with the book is not due to the issues in themselves. So how come this book keeps drawing me back in? Below is a breakdown of elements that come together to form the book.  At the very end I attempt to outline what the tantilising magic extra ingredient that pushes the Ishiguru into Nobel prize winning status might be .

Writing tips on Setting:

Instead of creating a whole new universe to set his story in Ishiguro uses a familiar yet creepy setting. Ishiguro’s narrative builds a world that you know – yet slowly reveals that you do not know it at all. It is genius to house his characters childhoods in a the oh so nostalgic world of the British boarding school – But Hailsham is not Hogwarts (where there may be many dangers but the good will always triumph) or a place of Blytonesque midnight feasts.

Hailsham – has many secrets and the fates of its ‘students’ are not of their own making.

Writing tips on Characters:

The story centres around Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, young people who are growing up, exploring relationships, jealousies, hormones and trying to find their place in the world – they may not always be likable, but they are relatable characters.

And yet, one of their guardians says ‘I myself had to fight back my dread of you all almost every day I was at Hailsham. There were times I’d look down at you all from my study window and I’d feel such revulsion…’ (p.264)

Like with the setting Ishiguro uses the ‘familiar yet creepy’ technique when he writes his central characters. They could be all of us, but they are not and it makes us turn the pages to discover their (our?) fate.

Writing tips on Narrative Voice:

The novel is written in first person and is narrated by Kathy H. Her point of view gives the reader a limited perspective. We know and are told what she knows.

One of the challenges to this type of narrative voice is illuminating areas of the story that are beyond the narrators point of view – and yet Ishiguro turns this into positive. We are searching out the truth of Kathy’s life with her. This is I think one of they key elements to the success of the book. It is at once brilliant and frustrating (again keeping us turning the pages).

A writer’s guide to Exposition:

There is hardly any ‘explaining’ in NLMG, but what little exposition there is is left until almost the very end of the book. We, like Kathy wander through her memories in a fog of limited understanding until Kathy and Tommy go to visit the guardians. The exposition given holds true to the rest of the book and is highly elliptical. It comes in the form of short bursts of conversation, which constantly threaten to end before they reveal what feels like enough information for poor Kathy and Tommy, and for the reader.

Writing tips on Narrative Structure:

The story consists of vignettes and flashbacks. There are three main time periods covered within the story and these can be broken up into: Hailsham, the cottages and the care centres. The story is woven around these within Kathies remembrances.

It is hard to get this right, and can be confusing if you don’t ‘signpost’ the timeshifts well. Like the limitations of the limited point of view, Ishiguro turns the possible negative into a positive. These glimpses of small moments of Kathy’s life, as she looks back on it as a thirty one year old, force the reader to piece the story together for themselves and keeps them firmly rooted in Kathy’s point of view.

A writer’s guide to the Magic:

I write that with a little tongue in cheek. The magic of any book is just that. An illusive, and highly individual quality that is hard to put ones finger on. But let me write about what I suspect is an element of Ishigur’s magic:

I believe it is the amount he trusts his readers.

Nothing is overstated or thrust under the readers nose, he simply leaves the windows wide open for the reader to cogitate. He trusts the reader to put the pieces together and this gives his writing a profound subtlety and restraint.

He takes all the elements outlined above and uses them to underpin this magic. There are many things Kathy herself can not see, can not allow herself to think about. And those things which dart away just when they are glimpsed are left with the reader long after the book has gone back onto the bookshelves.

Would you like your writing to do that?

I know I would.

Writers Guide to Reading Kazuo Ishiguro info graphic.
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How to Act like a Traveller at Home

How to Act like a Traveller at Home
Host travellers via Airbnb- If you have the space spruce up your spare room and create a hosting profile on airbnb – it is a great way to bring the travel vibe into your home. You can sit down to breakfast with travellers from all over the world – just like being at a backpackers – at home. And it can help you make some extra money to go towards your next holiday.
 

Travel Insider Tip: I love picking up little independent travel guides for my home city that are based on interviews with locals – always makes you discover new corners of your hometown!

Kathi Kamleitner – WatchMeSee

Turn off the Data on your phone – Chances are when you travel you pare your expenses down as much as possible – and paying for roaming data overseas is not cheap. Your travel self relies on wifi, paper maps, talking to your spouse over breakfast and looking out the window of the train. Give it a go at home (occasionally) and see how it feels. You will probably be a bit jittery at first – but perhaps the unconnected lifestyle will grow on you and you might just make some connections and memories offline. All the better to share on the social media of your choice later on.
 

Travel Insider Tip: Geocaching! Helps you discover so many hidden gems on your doorstep.

Claire Jessiman – Foodie Quine

Back up your computer, and your phone – This is a boring one, but practical.The life of a traveller is considerable less secure than your home life, and because of this travellers are better at remembering to back up their preccious memories, weather this is saving things to the cloud or a portable device no true-blue traveller would let their photo’s, diaries and work be vulnerable to theft and corruption by just being saved in one location – and while you are at it check up on your anti-virus software as well.

Travel Insider Tip: Keep an eye on cheap accommodation offers and book something nice in a different part of town for a night.

 Sonja Bolger – Migrating Miss

Join a travel network- If you work in a travel industry- but don’t get to travel as much as you would like join a group like Travel Massive – there are chapters all over the world and they are a great way to stay in touch with travel insiders, hear what is going on around you and sit down for a drink with some like minded travel addicts and talk about past and future travel escapades.

Travel Insider Tip: I’ve been doing a lot of exploring in my home city right now. Always fun to play tourist at home or to dig a little deeper and find hidden gems.Kirstin McEwan – The Tinberry Travels
Go somewhere new that is local to you – Chances are there are plenty of amazing things to discover not far from your front door. Why not: Visit a small gallery. Stand in a forest for 10 minutes and just listen. Walk down a different street when you are coming home from work. Eat out somewhere you’ve never eaten before.
 

Travel Insider Tip: Take a walking tours, actually find out what the buildings stand for that you walk past every day!Gemma Armit – TwoScots Abroad 

 

Try out minimalism- Reduce your wardrobe, remember how much simpler life is when you travel. Why not try pairing your wardrobe down to something closer to the contents of your suitcase. Sort out a seasonally appropriate wardrobe that can be mixed and matched to get you through your everyday- and put the rest into storage until the seasons change. Or try reducing other ‘stuff’ you keep at home – 

Travel Insider Tip: I spend most of my time in the same area, so during the weekends I like to head to a complete opposite side of town. Then I just stroll around, discover the area, find a good pub etc. I like seeing new sides of the city I live in.Christina Sunneklep – Cava for Lunch 

 

Know Your Passport: When you are travelling you always make it a priority to know where your passport is, and when the expiry date is. If you make this a priority in your at home life as well you won’t be sorry. Trust me you don’t have to go far to find a story about a lost or expired passport and a ruined trip. Don’t be the story.

Travel Insider Tip: Find your nearest hotel concierge and chat to them to find out what they recommend in the city for tourists – it’ll likely be things you’ve never considered, and they know all the best tips on how to get cheap/good tickets for things, and local events that are happening.

Julia MacGregor – Fizz and Pheasant

 

If you have kids or babies why not try out these tips to get that travel feeling: 

Throw out your routine – I know it is a scary idea. Dinner, bath, bed is my life raft, but when you are travelling with kids you have to accommodate all sorts of changes to routine, and everyone survives, and sometimes we even have fun. So at home why not: Go for a walk after dinner, eat out, sleep on a camp bed in the lounge room – who knows some of it might get incorporated into a new routine.

 Regular traveller Anne Hamilton told me how she and her son keep bed time from getting boring by bringing travel home. 

 

Travel Insider Tip: Every few weeks or so when bedtime gets boring and we’ve no real trips planned, we ‘camp out’ overnight in the sitting room. The 6 yr old chooses the country, and we spend the night under a selection of bedding on the sofas. Most recently, Antarctica was the ‘in’ place, so we put together a pick-up tea (a picnic by any other name) of tuna, prawns and ice cream – yep, we interpret local foods very widely -and ate it in our camp with March of the Penguins as background. If you left the room, you donned your hat and scarf and waterproofs (imaginary wellies out of deference to the lady in the flat below!) and braved the polar bears (played by a giant papier mache cat and Clifford the Big Red Dog)… Next time, apparently, we’re going to Denmark, but given LEGOLAND appears to be the real draw, that’ll be doubly interesting! 

 

Anne Hamilton – writeright editing

Again try minimalism – Get radical with how many clothes your children have – do they need that many t-shirts –are there things they never wear? Would you take that much stuff if you were travelling. The other kid area you could try to downsize is the toys – encourage the kids to help, make a pile to donate to a local charity.


Do you have any tipe to share?

Easter – remembering and looking forward

For me Easter will always be a special holiday. It is a holiday which smells, not like chocolate, but like boat fuel mixed with salt water. It feels like crisp mornings which will turn into sunny days.
For most of my life Easter was spent camping in Mallacoota. A seaside town on the very edge of Victoria, in Australia.
Mallacoota, Australia. With a dog.*
In her poem Blue Sarong, in You Won’t Remember This, my mother writes about:
the Mallacoota camping photo’s
that began when you were in a bassinet
and continued ’til you left home.

She asks what I remember, and my strongest impression is this olfactory one – the boat fuel – contained within that there are many layers of memory. One of the things I love about our Easter tradition of camping in Mallacoota is that I know so many others share them with me. They know the experience of driving slowly through the camp park on the waters edge looking out for a camp site and seeing that sparkling water for the first time since the last visit. If you are a boat owner you will have gotten in early and secured a camp sight adjacent to the moat moorings. We did not have those campsites, we simply drove past them slowly; and the smell – which might sound unpleasant to you, but is magic to me because it is the start of Easter.

I am being sentimental. This Easter is a shambolic one. I am working on Thursday, Sunday and Monday. Thursday night my eldest son Rafa and I are taking a train to stay with friends in Newcastle. I will get to do some chocolate distribution on Sunday morning before I go to work, but chances are that will be the only time the four of us will spend together. Added to this, as we host Airbnb we will have guests arriving and leaving all though Easter.
I am sentimental as well because last Easter we were in Australia. We were not in Mallacoota, we were at my mum’s and we were close to our departure date to return to the UK. But our Easter Sunday was special. My brother was visiting and we put up a tent on the riverbank and lit a fire, so at least some of Rafa and Finn’s Easter memories might smell of woodsmoke. The little boys ate more chocolate than they ever had in their lives, and were given special eggs to keep – I will need to find them!
Rover riverbank memories, with wood smoke – Nowa Nowa, Australia
This week on they way to nursery we saw a woman with a wheely suitcase. Rafa said ‘Maybe she is going to the airport, like we will so we can go to Nanna Helen’s to get Easter Egg’s.’
We will not be at Nanna Helen’s this Easter, nor will we be in Mallacoota – but I am working on some new Easter memories. Our Newcastle trip is a chance for Rafa and I to have some quality time together. To form memories that will last, that we can talk about in the years to come. I don’t know what shape these memories will take, but I suspect they won’t smell like boat fuel.
What do your Easter memories smell like? 
 
What traditions are you carrying forward? 
 
 
*When I was first posting this blog I struggled to find a picture of Mallacoota on my computer, and used one of my husband and I at Nowa Nowa. Then over Easter my brother and his girlfriend went to Mallacoota and posted some great pictures on Facebook. So I borrowed one with their dog Argie. Good to see the family tradition of going to Coota continues. 

The Sleep Series – Part two. The Bermuda Triangle

I am committed to writing positive sleep stories, and I will get there, but first I need to write out the Bermuda triangle of bad bed times we experienced this week – and then I will get to something positive!

Just now I am nostalgic for good bedtimes. It has been a bad week for sleep in our house. Or perhaps I should say it has been a bad week for bed times. Because we always look for explanations when things go off the rails here are the changes to our routine from which I understand the tri-parte badness to have come.

ONE: The clocks have changed – this one needs no explanation – although I admit to having gone into this change with unwarranted bravado – my husband was reading something online about managing the change and I scoffed a little and said something about winging it.

TWO: We got Rafa a new bed. The single bed Rafa sleeps in has been broken for quite awhile. Recently it became a bit more broken and we finally acknowledged that it needed to go. A skinny three year old can cope pretty well on a broken bed. But when his father or I take a shift on the single bed the brokenness becomes problematic. The only bit of the broken bed that seemed salvageable was the drawers underneath. Retaining this storage space seemed invaluable, so we looked for a bed that had the same height. Then I had a brain wave. Perhaps rather than a single bed we should get a double? Just a small double that could run wall to wall under the window? Wouldn’t that make all our bed swapping more endurable? The room the boys share is small, but we measured it out and thought it could work. In the end we found a bed second hand from the British Heart Foundation. On Sunday my husband set about pulling the broken bed apart and putting up the new one.

These things always take longer than you think they will, but eventually Jon got the new bed almost put together – then we realised the problem. Yes the bed could theoretically run wall to wall – but in order to get the very long screws in it needed to be constructed the other way around, and then moved into place. At this point my very spatially aware friend B was over with her son. While the kids ate a snack the three adults stood in the bedroom and pondered the bed problem. (This is known as a social occasion when you are a parent) B visualised and Jon and I moved the bed. In theory it should have fitted. In reality it did not. We had a lovely new bed. But it took up half the room. The remaining space somehow had to accommodate a chest of drawers, a book case and Finn’s cot.

B departed while we pondered. The good news was the drawers fitted under the bed. The bad news was Finn’s bed was not going to fit – so we decided he could share the big new bed with his brother.

So that’s the first two Sunday two changes/ challenges- clocks changing and first night with two boys in the new bed.

THREE: ‘Baby’. We have a baby staying with us. A lovely eight month old girl. Finn spends long periods of time entertaining her, she is a happy, contented girl – who has a very different sleep patterns to my sons. This baby and her mum and dad are staying with us for nine days having rented our spare room on airbnb, and although the house is full we are all managing well- in part because we use the communal parts of the house at different times. Except that just at the time when the boys are settling down for the evening the baby is having her dinner in the next room. ‘Baby’ Finn cries suddenly all alert and up he jumps to go and entertain her some more.

Rafa playing at bedtime.
Rafa pretending to be asleep.

 

It has been a bad week of bedtimes. Long drawn out. Grumpy mummy who is all to aware of her evenings being snatched away as the kids wriggle, fidget, need one more drink of water, one more visit to the toilet (Rafa) one more nappy change (Finn) one more lap around the house, one more chat to the baby, one more look out the window to check if it is morning yet. Finn has not settled down before eight all week – and I deem six pm to be bedtime.
Here is the bit I am nostalgic for. We are a snuggle to sleep family. When there are two adults home we divide the boys up and each lie down to settle the boys. There are certain routines that play out as we move towards sleep, certain fidgets of the day that need to be gotten out, but normally as these routines play out the boys move towards sleep. I have found that time, in bed beside Rafa or Finn when they slowly wind down can be amazingly productive to me. Sometimes (like this week the extended bed times are torture) but on a good night that forced quiet time, when I am concentrating on quieting my body and my breath so that the boys will do likewise, is when my thoughts collect for the day. Just like going for a run, when the busyness subsides and ideas that have been brewing pop into being. In the intro to You Won’t Remember This I wrote about how the whole idea to the book came about during that quiet time. Sometimes it’s not artistic, sometimes it is just practical day to day stuff that can get lost in the chaos of the day. I have great ideas at baby bedtime.
Sometimes they get lost. Things go on a bit too long. I move from energised to strung out, or sleepy. Or I get up from the sleeping child and go straight into ‘chore mode’ and the zen gets lost.

 

But sometimes, just sometimes, there is magic in the stillness.

Do you have a sleep story you want to tell? Get in touch and add to the sleep series.

About the Sleep Series: It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever two or more parents of young babies and children meet they will have a conversation about sleep. The Flamingo Rover sleep series is not intended to provide expert advice – more to tell sleep stories in an attempt to reassure parents that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ nights sleep, and there is no such thing as a parent who is doing the ‘wrong’ thing.


Please please please –  If you’ve had a bad night’s sleep – or a bad week or a bad month do make sure you tell your friends about it.  Your welcome to tell me about it if you like. If you still don’t feel like yourself tell your GP and your midwife and your Health Visitor. Find a sleep clinic and talk it through. Try to take a nap.  
Look out for your sisters – If you see someone with a baby who looks like they have had a bad night’s sleep – or a bad week or a bad month go and chat to them. 

 

The Sleep Series – Part one. I can’t remember where I slept last night

 

I walked in the door this afternoon and it flashed across my mind, for no particular reason that I could not remember where I slept last night. I don’t have a wild lifestyle. I just have two small children.
 
Sleeping Woman
For the first few weeks after going into his own bed Rafa settled down happily and put himself to sleep. Then he realised he could get out of bed by himself. Since then (nearly a year) Rafa has at some point in the night gotten out of his bed and into ours.
Back when we thought this was going to be a short lived phenomenon I struggled against it. We would try to put him back to bed in his own bed, I would toss and turn feeling claustrophobic stuck between my husbands body and my sons and lie awake waiting until I thought he had gone properly back to sleep so I could move him back to his bed.
Even worse than the feeling of claustrophobia was the feeling of him digging his long toe nails into my legs. He seemed to derive comfort from doing this. I did not.
Then I had one of those inevitable conversations with another mum. I was complaining about this interruption to my sleep, and wondering why he couldn’t just stay in his own bed, my friend, in her quiet, generous way pointed out how – during the daytime a child of his age – 2.5 -3 years old will not manage to spend long periods without being in either verbal or physical contact with their parents, so why she asked would this be different at night?
This realisation of his need to be close to us through the night did not solve the ‘problem’ of Rafa coming into bed with us, but it did allow me to stop thinking of it as a something I could ‘solve’. Instead I made some adjustments to help me to cope better.
 
Now when he comes in I guide him to the centre of the bed. This way I have some air on one side. To lessen the impact of the digging toenails I now sleep in leggings (it is Scotland, this is mostly a good idea anyway).
Sometimes I kick my husband out of the bed, and sometimes when the male snoring, wriggling, toe nail digging is all to much I quietly slip out of my bed, and go and sleep in Rafa’s bed.
Then there are the nights when the baby wakes up as well. At 17 -19months We are gradually transitioning way from me feeding the baby at night. So I can sometimes send my husband to settle the baby, give him a drink of water (tsa in Finn-ese) and snuggle down with him. Sometimes he wants ‘mulck’ (said with an amazing gutterul ckkk). And the musical beds move around once again.
It can be:
 
All four of us in one bed.
Rafa and mummy in the big bed -Finn and daddy in the little bed.
Rafa and daddy in the big bed – mummy in the little bed, Finn in his cot.
Finn and mummy in the little bed, Rafa and daddy in the big bed.
 
 
Do you have a sleep story you want to tell? Get in touch and add to the sleep series. 


About the Sleep Series: It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever two or more parents of young babies and children meet they will have a conversation about sleep. The Flamingo Rover sleep series is not intended to provide expert advice – more to tell sleep stories in an attempt to reassure parents that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ nights sleep, and there is no such thing as a parent who is doing the ‘wrong’ thing. 

 


Please please please –  If you’ve had a bad night’s sleep – or a bad week or a bad month do make sure you tell your friends about it.  Your welcome to tell me about it if you like. If you still don’t feel like yourself tell your GP and your midwife and your Health Visitor. Find a sleep clinic and talk it through. Try to take a nap.  
Look out for your sisters – If you see someone with a baby who looks like they have had a bad night’s sleep – or a bad week or a bad month go and chat to them. 

 

 
Image credit: The Met Odilon Redon (French, Bordeaux 1840-1916) Reproduced under a CC Licence.