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 Feed Your Soul

Have you already lost that New Year glow? That warm fuzzy feeling that this year things will go OK, things will be accomplished. You will be calm, intelligent and accomplished?

I reached a proper low around the middle of January. The bottom out involved words like: stomach bug, medical fasting, colonoscopy*, husband projectile vomiting, two small children, no family nearby, vandalism to the car, nobody going to bed on time, spilt milk, tears over spilt milk. So that was last Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  Our climbing Finn and the spilt milk, January 2017

Our climbing Finn and the spilt milk, January 2017

 

Thankfully, this week there has been some soul food to replenish my very empty tank.

 

A child free catch up. My friend B is from New Zealand and we have only known each other as ‘mums in Scotland.’ Most of the time we have snatched conversations amidst the chaos of small children. This week we managed a late afternoon glass of wine and a chat without the babies. Just sitting down to an uninterrupted chat with another mum is a special occasion. But B has been been on a soul food gathering project of her own. She has been asking each of her good friends to come up with two adjectives which describe her- and giving out two in return. For me she had ‘non-judgemental’ and ‘worldly’. I am still working on my return words.

 

Kid time: We were watching some vintage Wiggles and Rafa was dancing, but became concerned that he was ‘not very good.’ We reassured him that he was good, and also that perhaps if he practised more he would get even better. A moment later Rafa asked Jon and I to leave the room so that he could ‘practice’.

We dutifully let the room and had a brief chat (and a chuckle) in the kitchen, before being called back in to join Rafa (with his new and improved dance moves) in a wags the dog dance party.

For the first time in years I went to a writing workshop. It was an Ekphrastic (using visual art as a prompt) group led by Helen Boden. We spent the morning at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery with Helen taking us through the landscape photography exhibition – The View From Here. Two hours with no phone and no children were soul food in themselves, but I took real energy and joy from the guided viewing, stretching my writer muscles and listening to others read their work (especially those who wrote and read in Scots).  I admit it was also a bit of a buzz having people chuckle at the occasional line of my own. Here are some of my scribbles:
On viewing Mer de Glace  – Francis Bedford French Alps, 1860, and ‘View from Baluchiston’ Fred Bremnr India, 1899.
Humans in Landscapes
The leisure Class.
Explore, conquer.
What monster is there that needs out-run up a mountain?
Icy passage, Oh the air up there is fine.
But I wonder who is at home cooking the dinner?
The hot rock under bare feet .
Man stands in a landscape and he thinks himself large.
Stands tall. Knows of the photographers click,
but does he think about what comes after?
Watches on, listens while friends tell a tale,
a romance perhaps,
Or a stubbed toe and lingering pain.
The small details they carry in their pockets are not captured here.
Just their deeds. Just a moment gathering water.
Geological landscape and man.
Does it make a poem? Hmm.
Inspired by the title: ‘Late Afternoon – Remembering Lost Holidays’
Photograph by Thomas Joshua Cooper and other Highlands landscapes.
These Scottish landscapes, especially the bald hills- Denuded long past set my teeth on edge today. Yes there is adventure there and beauty and majesty. But Oh please just give me a tree! No actually give me a forest and a stream and a child naked squatting to examine a stone rubbed smooth by river water. With bare feet tough from a summers wandering.

Late December at the Green Lochen my son asked to take off his boots. He paddled a moment and then asked to have his boots put back on. The long dark days just now. I’m over them.
‘Is it morning?’ He asks everyday.

And there I was back writing about the children, and daydreaming about the contrast between Scotland, where I find myself today, bringing up small children, and Australia of my youth. I also loved the contrast between my piece, and other readings based on the same images. You can read some of the other work inspired by the morning here – Sam Dounis.

‘Can I take my boots off.’ Paddling in Scotland in December 2016

 

Over a bowl of soup after the workshop one of the women commented that she finds her other writing flows better afterwards. I like the notion that what you produce is not necessarily the goal. It is free-ing because you are not setting yourself up to fail – or to worry if you don’t ‘produce’ something. When I go back (which I hope to next month) I will try to remind myself of that.

Still even having occasionally sunk into that mum habit of fretting over the need to make the most of every valuable second, I came away from the workshop with a bounce in my step.

Some other soul food moments this week have been starting ‘The Buried Giant, the Kazuo Ishiguro book I bought in December, Skyping with my brother, getting new twitter followers, going to the gym with my husband and having a family swim.

So here’s hoping New Year Fuzzy Feelings- the reboot- lasts longer than the original… or perhaps I just need to factor in soul food all year round?

*edited 25/1/2017 – talking with a friend last night I realised I should explain, I have a first degree relative who died from bowel cancer (my father) as such the advice is to have a colonoscopy every five years – happy to say I am symptom free. If you have any concerns about your health don’t be shy to seek medical advice.

Cover Art

Cover Art
So much of my communication with the world these days takes place on a screen. Big screens, small screens, in the case of my phone: a repeatedly smashed, repaired, smashed and dropped in the toilet screen. And I am not complaining; computers and phones help me stay in touch with my family and friends in Australia, they help me see the journey of a dear friend as she battles major illness and they help me stay in touch with fellow mummies down the road.
I have recently managed a few non screen based communications. I wrote a letter to my friend Helen in Australia, and received a lovely card and vintage sewing paraphernalia through the post in return.
an Alice Retrocard in the post from Australia

I also got a great card from my mum to congratulate me for being a ‘paperback writer’. The other non-screen communication is of course the book. Ok yes you can access it via a screen, but it is also an object that you can hold in your hands – and the first moment this book – or any book communicates is via the cover. Cover Art is a big deal- No matter what they say, people do judge a book by it’s cover – nowhere more so I think than in the world of self/ independent publishing.

For the cover of You Won’t Remember This I started out pondering photographs, I spoke to contributor Meghan about using some photography by her husband, I trawled my own travel photo archives (lots of good memories- but never quite the right thing), I got in touch with another photography/mummy friend Amelia Shepherd  who sent me some lovely options, but still I pondered. As the book progressed and I looked about at other travel books I realised that this book was not a ‘traditional’ travel book. I had poetry, very creative non-fiction and most of all unlike much traditional travel writing, the people were at the forefront of every story, rather than the places. A cover needed to communicate this and I eventually realised that a photo based cover was not going to work.
I (literally) bailed up the artist who painted the beautiful ‘You and your boy’ cover artwork. The wee boy’s and I were at my mum’s in Australia in early 2016 and Gary Yelen (who is a man of many talents; a story in the book, cover artist – and was many years back the sounding board for my blog name before I headed off on my travels) had dropped in having given himself a minor injury doing some renovations to an unequipped house across the road. I gave him access to a sink and some rags to clean himself up, and while he bled into the sink I asked him what he thought about having a go at an image for the cover of the book.
I sent him a photo I thought could be a jumping off point (you can see it on the books facebook page. and some vignettes of stories from the collection, and I went back to my editing and parenting (a lot of toilet training that summer if truth be told). Not long afterwards Gary sent me the beginnings of an image that was to become the cover. As is often the way with screen communications – I sent back an affirmative reply, he did not get it. Eventually in a chat to his wife I repeated that affirmative, it got passed on to him and we went forwards.
It was not until Gary was back at his French life working at his gallery frukt and I was back at my Edinburgh life that I got to see the finished painting off screen – I was delighted – I had an image – but not yet a cover.
With my foray into publishing I had also decided that the timing was right to ‘brand’ myself. If my Flamingo Rover blogger identity was to move forward in the world it needed to do so with style. As with so much of this project branding and book design was entirely new to me. With the screen of my computer bringing a plethora of design options to my feet I went with (as we often do) someone I was familiar with. I love my husbands logo, it was designed by a friend of his 15 years ago – and as far as I was concerned it did not look dated – a key element to a logo. And as luck would have it she still worked in design and had an office space that opened onto a kid friendly cafe. On a hot Edinburgh day I took the small boys on the bus down to Leith to visit Jenny Proudfoot at the Drill Hall to discuss logo’s and cover design.

The meeting itself was mayhem. Rafa demanded all my attention, Finn was grotty and grizzly, but we managed the beginnings of a conversation which continued back and forth – sometimes on screen and sometimes in person until I had both a cover design and a logo.

One of the new Flamingo Rover logo’s!
One of the things Jenny and I discussed was the way the colours of the book would communicate. Now I do love my pink, but I wanted the book to appeal to more than just mummies, ie- not to look like chic lit (which I love by the way). In a happy compromise I got to keep pink with my logo and (I think) I have ended up with a beautiful book cover which perfectly suits Gary’s painting.
With the book in hand, and baby Finn in the pram, I trekked about to some landmark Edinburgh bookstores. It was an educative experience. By the end of the morning I had come to realise that there is a universal horror of self publishing. An almost identical quiver of horror ran through each and every bookseller I approached – until they saw the book, at which point there was a little sigh of relief.

Cover Art win. (Ok yes having a nicely bound book with an ISBN also helped)

You Won’t Remember This – travel with babies

Thanks (at least in part) to the attractive book cover you can now buy the book from an actual bookstore – Word Power Books, and in a nice bit of synchronicity, our second retail outlet is also on Nicholson street. Word Power is in Edinburgh, UK and Foundry is in Bairnsdale, Victoria Australia- but both Nicholson Street.

 

You Won’t Remember This- travel with babies -Published

In the underrated film Sex and the City II Carrie announces ‘I’ve been cheating on fashion with furniture.’ I have a similar confession to make, I’ve been cheating on blogging with editing/publishing.

Twenty writers from around the world (OK 19, plus me!) have trusted me with their stories of travel with babies, they have waited patiently while I edited, had a baby, looked after it,  landed in hospital with mastitis, bought a house, stripped wallpaper, painted, moved furniture about, wished my boys would have a nap at the same time, travelled to Australia, edited a bit more, attempted to learn about typesetting, realised it was beyond the scope of my abilities at this juncture. They waited while I fiddled about with my introduction, pondered various options for cover art, contemplated book dimensions… made decisions, lost the bits of paper I had made the decisions on, started all over again, had my computer re-booted, went back to work at my day job and picked up every single possession off the floor every day, only to find it had been thrown on the floor again twenty minutes after my boys got up in the morning. Non of this is in any particular order, but it was all going on throughout the books gestation.

Finn cooling down at Lake Tyres, Australia 2016
It is a scary thing to take on something you are not very good at (editing) and something you know nothing about (publishing) and work at it and work at it and work at it. Sometimes I wondered if I was taking so long because I was hesitant about putting it out into the real world; but mostly I was just super excited about sharing it, and frustrated by my incapacity to move forward as quickly as I would have liked.

BUT… the project I began long long ago, and blogged about here and there has finally finished its gestation and been birthed into the world. There are real books, with pages you can turn and dog ear, a cover you can pat, stories you can read and re-read and even scribble on if you wish.

I know everyone says this about their book, but my book is a true beauty: from its cover art by Gary Yelen, its cover design (and my lovely new logo) by Jenny Proudfoot, its splendid typesetting by Hewer Text, and most especially the stories collected inside and I can’t wait to send the book out into the world.

You-Wont-Remember-This-Travel-Babies
You Won’t Remember This – travel with babies cover design

The New Project

I am looking to collect up travel stories with a twist – travel with babies. Do you think you could be interested in contributing a story, poem, memoir, or travel tale? My concept is still sketchy, but I am ultimately looking to create a book of beautifully written and engaging stories from around the world.
I am provisionally entitling the project: You Won’t Remember This – travel with babies
At the moment I am after expressions of interest, and perhaps a brief outline – if a story immediately springs to mind, email: youwontrememberthis@yahoo.com
Even if the idea of writing a story for print is intimidating – but you have a great tale to tell – do let me know, I am more than happy to do some work-shopping/editing with you.
 I am not sure what my story will be for the collection, but here is a Rafa travel one I have been writing…
                                                             A Big Deal
Rafa, in the queue you were your happy smiling self, but by the time we got on the bus something had taken hold. You told us about your unhappiness all the way along the winding farm road. Although we still remember the mutterings of the other passengers, at the time we were mostly concerned for you. What was this red faced distress? The tour guide spoke, but his voice was lost beneath yours: ‘I’m not happy, I’m not happy, I’M NOT HAPPY!’ On a packed and moving bus we quickly ran out of options for comforting you, and resorted to the old reliable – a mummy cuddle. It did not help.
Blessedly the bus ride was short, but your unhappiness continued in the open air. Your mummy hovered at the back of the group with you screaming in your harness. People with children murmured sympathetically; people without children congratulated themselves. The white muslin draped over your head to block out the March sun did nothing to muffle your distress.
All around us lay fields touched by the long New Zealand summer, but where we in a green bower. Quite likely the tour guide was explaining why, but we did not hear him. Bees may have buzzed happily in this innocent, happy land, but we did not hear them.
The green of Hobbiton, New Zealand, 2014
Slowly, slowly you quietened, moving from slow grizzles to restlessness and finally a hiccupy sleep. Luckily this was in the days when you were not so big your mummy couldn’t carry you, and so up hill and down dale we went at last, exploring Hobbiton.
On our way to Lake Taupo for the weekend I happened to spy that Hobbiton was only a small detour. The most expensive single touristy thing either of us had ever done – and it started with the you screaming the place down.
Movie buffs, book geeks, yes and yes we were; obsessive know it all’s who constantly need to prove their extensive knowledge of Elvish, Entish, lost kings, and Orcs – we left that for others in the group. I read and imagined Tolkein as a young woman in Australia, but now I live in the land of its authorship, and am getting to know the landscapes in which the author imagined his world into being. In New Zealand we stepped into Peter Jackson’s imaginings of The Shire and spent a happy afternoon wandering about with a quiet bub, peering at Hobbit holes, listening, at last, to the guides stories, and having a quiet ale at the Green Dragon.
Sleepy Rafa and Rover mum outside a Hobbit hole.
And the reason for this distress, we discovered later that day – your first tooth, peaking out of some angry gums. A big deal indeed. Rightly causing you to be upset. But Rafa, this tooth, and those that follow are the doorway to new worlds – chewing and biting new tasty foods.
We look forward to sharing so many new things with you. Tasty lunches, second breakfasts and stories of brave young Hobbits.
That troublesome tooth on a better day