Tuesday, 30 December 2014

New Year Thoughts

Another year is approaching a new dawn, prompting many to look back at the last twelve months and forward to the future. In some ways my own year has been one of the worst of my life and yet I don't really feel that's entirely accurate. I'm writing this as a press conference is being held in Indonesia announcing that 162 families will never get to see their loved ones again. As awful as losing a parent is I don't think it really compares at all with what those people are going through.

This has got me thinking about how important it is to live your life as part of a society, as a cog in a greater machine. When my dad died I was overwhelmed with the kindness of strangers, friends and family alike. The strength they gave so generously got me through those first confusing and distressing weeks, so that four months on I feel like I'm processing and learning to live with the new reality. Without that support I genuinely don't think that would have been the case; thank you to everyone who was there for me, even if it was just a text message. You'll never know how appreciated it was.

So if I've learned anything from the last twelve months it's to be kind, even if you don't think it will make much difference. I've also learned to live well, and as happily as you can. Embrace the lessons life gives, even if it was unasked for. I learned what loss feels like. I also learned how amazing people can be. I learned how much I appreciate the people in my life.

So whatever you're doing for New Years, give someone you care about a hug, even if it's a virtual one. Raise a glass to those who you've left behind and to those you haven't met yet. And above all: Be excellent to each another.


Monday, 1 December 2014

Book Review: The Borgias

The Borgias
Christopher Hibbert
2008
Kindle edition, 2011

I'm currently suffering from Fiction burn-out. For some reason my brain has decided it does not want fantasy lands full of warriors and goblins, nor wizards, witches, and Queens in disguise. It doesn't want far-flung worlds, with desperate attempts at survival against the odds. Instead it's been crying out for fact - or at the very least possible facts, depending on your point of view. So I've been reading history books, and just finished The Borgias by Christopher Hibbert.

I got interested in the Borgia family with the excellent TV show starring Jeremy Irons. If you've not seen it I highly recommend it. It's like Game of Thrones but real(ish). And without the White Walkers. Schemes aplenty and rumpy-pumpy at every opportunity. Sadly they didn't get the chance to finish the story of the Borgias as the show got cancelled in it's fourth season, and it ends before we see what ultimately happened to Pope Alexander and his adult children. So I picked up Hibbert's book, as it seemed to cover what I wanted to know.

If you have no knowledge at all of the Borgias this is an excellent place to start, as it covers everything, from the time of Alexander's ascension to the Papal throne, to the last days of his children. The Borgias are a big deal because of the scandals that surrounded them; Spanish by birth, they were never happily accepted into Rome, and Alexander was a man of extreme ambition. He was clearly someone who was willing to do almost anything to further the gains of him and his family, and he had great plans for all of his children. Sadly the family were to largely vanish from the wheels of power, but their lives have inspired countless fictional stories. Hibbert gives a good run down of the key events and attempts to cast some light on this intriguing family. I should mention that the book includes a lot of detail about clothing and materials at the time, which at first seems odd until he quotes from sources; they too talk a lot about what kind of dress a person was wearing, so it's no wonder Hibbert does too. And eventually I came to be grateful for it as it coloured in this historical time and made the characters within it all the more real.

The book is written in a style very reminiscent of a novel, albeit with regular quotes from chroniclers and messengers. Though the book moves swiftly through the events of the Borgia's reign in Rome, all the way up to the death of Lucrezia, the last of Pope Alexander's children to survive, it really brings the characters out in detail. Some are a bit more indistinct than others; Cesare is a difficult character to get across, because the man was so mysterious even in his own time. But I definitely came away knowing he was not as nice as he is portrayed in the TV show. Or as handsome, I imagine. In fact this book should be a must-read for anyone who has seen and loved the show, which inevitably changed a lot of the actual history to create drama. Here you can find the real drama and make your own judgements about this fascinating family.

One thing I really appreciated about Hibbert's book is that he takes time to ensure that motivations of sources is known to the reader. A lot was written about the Borgias and most would be considered slanderous by our standards. While some of the terrible stories may be true others are fabrications, and Hibbert makes the point of trying to point out one from another. Some may feel he is overly sympathetic to the Borgia family but I felt this was much needed, as so much is accepted as true about them that is nothing more than rumour (for example the whole Lucrezia having sex with her brother and her father thing - no evidence exists of this and yet it's often assumed to be true).

If you too are in need of a bit of edifying, or want to see what Rome was like during it's height, I can highly recommend Hibbert's book; fantastical, colourful, intriguing and inspiring.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Internet Holidays Are Highly Recommended

At the risk of giving away my age, I grew up without the Internet. It didn't come along in my life until around the age of 16. It was very blue from I remember. Seriously, it really was. MSN and local messaging services freaked me out - once I was sitting in the computer room at college doing something when suddenly a little box appeared in the corner of the screen saying, "your cute, what's your name?" - so I never used those, except for rare occasions. Hotmail and Yahoo search were the main sites I remember, and I seem to recall reading lots of things that looked like entries in encyclopedias. Hell, they probably were exactly that. I never bought anything online, and I never had a My Space page, though I knew people who did.

I was not that fussed about the Internet or what it had to offer. Now though I not only work for one of the biggest online companies in the world, but I also have profiles on almost every single social media platform going, accounts with tonnes of online shops and a Twitter feed that I can't stop checking a few times a day at least. In essence, I am as much an Internet junkie as plenty of others. And this weekend I was pretty much cut off from all of it, because I was away and my phone throws a fit whenever I try to do anything with it beyond text or call someone. And you know what? It was wonderful. 

Monday, 10 November 2014

Making Plans

This past week I've mostly been consumed by the day job. But I am now on a much-needed holiday, which I'm doing in proper stay-cation style. Monday, I plan to see the poppies at the Tower of London before they get taken down, and then I'll be watching Interstellar in the afternoon at the Odeon. From what I've heard it needs a big screen and they don't come much bigger than there.

The rest of the week is going to involve chilling, before going to see a friend of mine who lives up in Derby for the weekend. I'm glad that the week has turned out to have a variety of activities in it, as I don't think I want to be sitting around thinking about things for the whole week. That path would inevitably lead to tears and feeling sorry for myself. I even had a little lump in my throat with the minutes silence held today for Remembrance Sunday. It's strange, the difference between knowing intellectually that people have lost loved ones to war, and knowing first-hand the pain of losing someone so close.

All this talk of the two world wars has also made me think that 2015 will be the year I finally go to Denmark. My grandmother, my dad's mother, was from Copenhagen and the Second World War had a devastating affect on her and the family. When the Nazi's occupied Denmark my family were involved in the resistance, as so many other Danes were. Unfortunately, all of my family, except for my grandmother, was killed or captured. All I know about what happened is that they were attending my great-grandmother's funeral when the Nazis came into the church and opened fire. My grandmother escaped and was in hiding for the rest of the war, until Denmark was liberated by the British. She met my grand-dad, who was with the Navy, they got married and my grandmother went to Irvine in Scotland, to wait for my grand-dad's return. She never talked about it and we're not even sure where exactly she was from; until her death bed my grandmother told no-one anything, and the details my mum managed to get are few and far between.

Dad was never keen on looking into what had happened to his mother's family. His attitude was to let sleeping dogs lie, a mindset I don't doubt he got from my grandmother. But the history buff in me isn't happy with that; and I feel like I owe it to the family to find out about them if I can. And in an odd way I think it might help me process that dad is gone. Even if all I get out of it seeing Copenhagen, it will feel good to reconnect with that bit of my lost past, and maybe a little side of dad too.

As they say at this time of year: "Lest we forget."

Stonehaven War Memorial, 2013

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Happy Bonfire Night - However You Celebrate

This week has mainly consisted of this:





And because it is in fact November it means Guy Fawkes Night is upon us, a night I'm not really much of a fan of. You see, I am old and boring, and have been since about the age of fourteen. I hate fireworks and think displays are massively overrated. You spend hours out in the cold, freezing your bits off to watch some explosives way up in the sky make pretty colours. Bah humbug.

The other thing I've never liked about the 5th of November is the whole "burning of the Guy" thing. I love a good bonfire and a traditional pagan style burning ritual, but knowing the history of the Gunpowder Plot stops me from really embracing the fun of burning an effigy of a man who was killed horribly. Told you; old and boring.

One latest addition to Bonfire Night is quite interesting to me though; the "Million Mask March" that occurs in central London, near parliament by the group labelled as "Anonymous". I say labelled, because the actual group are probably long disbanded and/or arrested and the people who now go under that moniker have chosen it for themselves. What I find interesting about it all is how much effort this relatively small amount of people will put into getting the masks from V for Vendetta, creating placards, and marching around London protesting against... something. I'm not entirely clear what precisely they're marching for and even their own website lists a variety of motivations; they march against austerity, infringement of rights, and against mass surveillance. What exactly they want though is unmentioned and for that reason alone it seems utterly pointless to me; a protest without a clearly defined goal is just a bunch of people standing out in the cold, freezing their bits off... hopefully without the explosive bit.


But each to their own - some like to watch fireworks, some like to carry placards and others like to tuck into a nice fish and chip supper while watching The Wicker Man. Happy 5th!

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

It's That Scary Time of Year Again

As October wanes there is a terrible, daunting and spine chilling event on the horizon. If you're thinking Halloween, you're not thinking scary enough. No, I'm referring to Nanowrimo.

Not a greeting from an alien being, but an event that occurs every year in November, where thousands of would-be-writers lock themselves in their fortress of solitude and attempt to hammer out 50,000 words before December 1st. That might be a whole story, it might be a couple of stories or it might even just be the first quarter of an epic fantasy with a dark lord and mysterious strangers appearing at opportune moments. The important thing is getting 50,000 words written on your story(s) before November ends.

I've done Nanowrimo once and it was really, really hard. I don't actually remember if I managed it or not (which suggests I didn't) but it was a great experience for a few reasons;

  • It made me sit and write almost every day.
  • It forced me to write over 2000 words in every sitting. Well, actually it made me write 500 words one day and then 3500 on another.
  • I realised by the end of the process what an incredible ball-ache writing a novel is.

That last may sound like I didn't enjoy it; I did in fact and would highly recommend it. But it is still an indescribably painful, frustrating and emotional process to actually get 50,000 words on screen in such a short time. Even more painful when you read your manuscript and see you've created a monster that should be locked away in the darkest trunk you can find, and then sunk to the bottom of the sea. But that bit doesn't actually matter (another thing I learned). What matters is actually getting those words down and realising that you are capable of doing it. One of the biggest hurdles to writing is the fear factor, and a big fear is that you just can't hack it. But actually, you probably can. It may make you white haired and gibbering in a corner of the room by the end, but you can do it.

I won't be doing Nanowrimo this year, though I am using the month as an incentive to write at least 500 words of something everyday. I have a spreadsheet and everything:

DateMonthWord Count GoalWord Count ActualDifferenceAccrual GoalAccrual ActualDifference
10/27/2014October50010645645001064564
10/28/2014October500-5001000106464
10/29/2014October500-50015001064-436
10/30/2014October500-50020001064-936
10/31/2014October50025001064
11/1/2014November50030001064
11/2/2014November50035001064
11/3/2014November50040001064
11/4/2014November50045001064
11/5/2014November50050001064
11/6/2014November50055001064
11/7/2014November50060001064
11/8/2014November50065001064
11/9/2014November50070001064
11/10/2014November50075001064
11/11/2014November50080001064
11/12/2014November50085001064
11/13/2014November50090001064

As you can see I doubled my goal yesterday. This blog post will get me today's target. Geeky? Yes. Useful? Definitely. I am a master at procrastinating, even though I really enjoy writing once I'm sitting down and actually doing it. But it's a game me and my subconscious have to play; I'll tell myself to do something, and the other me will say "okay, in a minute". Five hours later and I'm practically screaming at myself to do the thing I want to do. But I still find distractions and shiny things. In fact to understand just how bad this can get go to Hyperbole and a Half to read the post that I think may have been stolen from my own head.

So, in the face of my own never-ending ability to not do the thing I need to do, I need to come up with ways to trick or force myself into it. The above spreadsheet is my whip with which I will hit myself to get shit done. It has worked before, but I think I made the goal too high, so I soon just threw the whip away and played Plants vs Zombies instead. This time I've kept it low; I know I can clear 500 words in under thirty minutes, if the wind blows right, so it's not as daunting as setting 1000 words as the target instead. Hell, this 'ere blog post is already 790 words so I'm totally on target for today.

If you do decide to take on the Nanowrimo challenge - I highly suggest you do if you want to write novels or short stories for a living - then I can only offer the following advice.

  • Do play the numbers game: you will not always be able to hit your daily word goal, so there will be some days you can allow yourself to write very little, as long as you write a lot on another day.
  • Schedule days off. Seriously, it will stop your brain from dribbling out your ears and down your neck. No one wants brain matter on their clothes.
  • Try to get some sort of story plan together before you start. Even if you only plan each day as it happens, it really helps to have thought about what you're going to write before you sit in your writing chair. Otherwise you'll end up staring at the screen as though you're looking into the great empty eyes of Cthulhu before it devours you.
  • Do not beat yourself up if you don't actually write 50,000 words in the time frame; the point of this challenge is to get into the habit of writing, and prove to yourself you can churn out the words when you need to. Think of it like exercise: you may not be able to run the whole marathon and get to the end drawing on your hands and knees, but just getting over that finish line is proof that you are a super-amazing wonder-person who may not be able to fly, but it is not through a want of trying. And you have the broken bones to prove it.

If you want to be as geeky as me I really recommend some kind of spreadsheet too. Not only does it allow you to track how you're doing it also means you can make really nifty graphs and stuff to show your good and bad days, or if you add it, your best times of day to write. And then, when you see the fruits of your labours in those pretty charts you can give yourself a pat on the back, and proudly say, "I am a geeky writer".

Victory hedgehog believes in you!



Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Feelings

Feelings are weird. They rarely behave how you expect them to and when they do it's more puzzling than reassuring. The last two months have been a strange ride, and a big part of me can't believe my dad's been gone for that long; yet it's no time at all. By and large it's been an odd mixture of feeling not a lot before either crashing into a pile of tears or laughing so hard I am yet again crying. But in a good way. I think.

One weird thing I've noticed is anything can set me off laughing or sobbing. I was standing waiting for a tube train at a station I've used a gazillion times. It is also the station my dad used for the 37 odd years he worked in London. This tiny thought barely passed through my squidgy brain and it left behind an emotional storm akin to Hurricane Bawbag. Only a sheer force of stubbornness stopped me from sobbing on that platform.

Two days later I read a tumblr post about a guy playing the Sims while drunk, and it made me laugh so hard I couldn't see or breathe. It's not even that funny. Well, it is, if you're a gamer who also tortured poor little sims in a variety of fucked-up-this-is-what-hell-is-like ways. But it cracked me up to the point my sides hurt.

The rest of the time is even stranger. I can have perfectly normal conversations, I enjoy people's company, I am genuinely emotionally engaged with what's going on. But afterwards it seems like someone turned the volume down or forgot to paint the colours in. It's all just a bit "meh".

Essentially this grief business is a complete and utter mind-fuck; just when you think you're maybe getting a grip on it all, a page from a newspaper will drift past on the wind and remind you of that time your loved one did a thing or said a thing. There's absolutely no frickin similarity between that damned bit of paper and the memory but nevertheless your brain goes, "huh, that reminds me of this time you probably don't want to think about right now, but I'm going to make you think about it anyway, because I'm a sadistic prick who is going to make you have feels - whether you want to or not."

The one thing I can say about all this is I am definitely getting a much better understanding of how to write more rounded characters with major emotional issues. In an odd way keeping a part of myself as an observer is helping, as it provides a distance when all of these feelings get a bit too much. Writing what you know has never rung more true for me than right now.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Book Review: The Name of the Wind - The King Killer Chronicle: Day One

The Name of the Wind - The King Killer Chronicle: Day One
Patrick Rothfuss
2007
Kindle Edition, 2010

I was recommended The Name of the Wind by a friend of mine from work after my dad passed away - she's been through that loss and said it was a great escapist fantasy. She also warned me that people died in it, just in case that might trigger me, but I guessed that might feature; it wouldn't be much of a fantasy story without someone close to the protagonist kicking the bucket. She was also desperate to find someone else to talk to about it, and what better way then to force a friend to read the same thing so you can chat. No forcing was necessary as it turned out; The Name of the Wind is a thoroughly enjoyable yarn. While not original in the slightest, the way it brings the elements together largely works and is extremely easy to read. It's also perfect for those less familiar with fantasy, or younger readers who are looking for their next "boy wizard" fix.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Someone Needs to Call the Doctor

When the news broke that Peter Capaldi was to be the next Doctor Who I was thrilled; he's a great actor, he has the crazy eyed look and he's Scottish. All of these things made me really look forward to seeing him in full Who mode; confusing silly humans while saving them and just generally being incredibly cool. Sadly this is not what I have got so far from the eighth season of the Doctor. So far I've found the stories to be largely dull and predictable; Doctor Who by numbers. There hasn't really been any cool new creatures for the Doctor to face off against. And worst of all the companion, Clara Oswald, has continued to annoy me; seriously, what does she actually do now that her "puzzle" was solved by the last Doctor?

I should say at this point that if you haven't seen any of Season 8 that there are spoilers ahead. Read on at your own risk.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Finding Comfort in TV Shows

Two weeks have passed since my last post and my life is settling back into a routine again, albeit one with a massive missing piece. It's an odd experience, trying to create a new normal. All you can do is take it all one day at a time and try not to think too much about times to come and who's going to be missing from those future events. I've made plans already to be with Mum over Christmas for a full two weeks; we both know it's going to be hard but hopefully being together will soften the ache the vacant chair is going to evoke. I'm also keeping myself busy with work, and with my at home activities. But I'm still making sure I take time to feel and mourn as needed; it's surprising how sneaky grief can be.

Over the weekend I watched the entire first season of Transparent on Amazon Prime. It is without a doubt one of the best TV shows I have seen in a long while. It was created and directed by Jill Soloway, probably best known for writing episodes of Six Feet Under. Challenging, funny, bittersweet, Transparent genuinely has it all. Sadly I know a lot of people will be put off or otherwise not give it a chance purely because of the subject matter and the mature nature of the programme. This is a show not embarrassed by the human body, and explores the nature of gender, being true to yourself and living your life for others sake, regardless of your own desires. It stars Jeffrey Tambor in career defining form as Mort Pfefferman, who has finally decided to live how he always wanted to; as a she. The impact this has on the family, along with flashbacks on his road to discovery, make up the first season.

With each episode only lasting for half an hour, quick-fire dialogue and outstanding performances from all, Transparent is a rare TV gem. It also made me cry horrendously. Not because of the content (though the whole family storyline did bring up feels) but due to the musical choices. A lot of it is the kind of music Dad always listened to. And then at the end of the ninth episode, they played one of the songs we had for Dad's funeral, Leonard Cohen's "That's No Way to Say Goodbye". I am not ashamed to admit I bawled like a baby. It was unexpected, but oddly was a great relief to get so much of the pain out. Because this is the thing about grief; it doesn't come when you want it to or in the way you expect. It builds up inside you without you being aware of it, like poison waiting to be drained. Then it hits you sideways and you just hope it won't be when you're in a room full of people.

If it weren't for TV box sets and streaming services I can guarantee all of this would be harder to deal with. So far I've finished Transparent, two Seasons of the Borgias (also amazing), Arrow Season 1 and a number of films. I've also been making time for writing every day and am finding that this too is a great cathartic experience. Not just getting words down and exploring a story, but feeling like even in the middle of this hurricane I'm in right now, that I'm still moving toward something. Watching inspiring things like Transparent only encourages me to keep going, in the hope that the something I'm moving toward is a story of my own that's half as good.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Observations on Grief

There are times when life tests us, when just getting through the day is a goal in and of itself. Trying not to block emotion, but at the same time trying to not let the tidal wave of feeling engulf us. I'm in that place right now and it is a strange, frustrating, educational and, at times, painful place to be. I'm making goals for myself, taking time to enjoy things, and giving myself permission to just feel what I need to feel without embarrassment or self-consciousness. This is what's been going on since my dad died two and half weeks ago from a heart attack.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Day I Saw George and Robin


For once I have a good excuse to be late with my blog post; I've got a lot of deadlines for stories and one of them is the 31st August. Cue much furious typing and trying to get the thing finished to submit. For only a 3000 word story it's been hard to make the time to write. I of course blame the day job (and not my own inclination to watch TV episode marathons) but things are looking good. I'm on track to have it finished, rewritten and edited before the due date.

The other thing that ate into my time, but was welcome to, was an event I went to last Tuesday evening; HarperVoyager UK presenting George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb in conversation. As these are two of my favourite authors, and the event was happening about ten minutes walk from where I work, I couldn't say no. Tickets weren't cheap, at £45 each, but then again how often are you likely to see not one but two of your beloved authors in the same place, talking about their own work and asking each other questions? I can safely say it was worth the price of admission.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury
1950
Paperback, 2013 edition

Ray Bradbury is one of the old guard of Science Fiction that I had never got around to reading. Deciding to remedy this situation I thought I'd give The Martian Chronicles a go, as it is consistently mentioned as a must-read of the science fiction genre. I was expecting an old fashioned science fiction story, considering it's from 1950. It turns out I massively underestimated how incredibly old fashioned it would be.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Remembrance

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. I haven't been following the news about it too closely, I'm ashamed to say, but I am planning on making a trip to the Tower of London to see the art installation there, where they are filling the moat with ceramic poppies. Part of the reason I'm not paying too much attention to all this is likely due to how it's making me feel about events at the moment. While the media flit from one disaster to the next, or attempt to terrify us with the threat of Ebola from Africa (thereby exploiting two of their favourite stereotypes, the deadly dark continent and a pandemic) I'm left still wondering about things they've moved on from. Specifically, the events in Ukraine. It feels as though the true lessons of WWI and WWII have still not been learnt.

The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.

I can't be the only one feeling like the remembrance of WWI is poignantly timed, considering what's happening in Eastern Europe and the Middle East right now. And while Israel will no doubt continue to shell schools, markets and whatever else it pleases in Gaza; while Hamas will no doubt continue to break ceasefires by killing Israeli soldiers and throwing rockets into civilian areas in Israel; there is something stirring in Ukraine that could swamp us all. It mimics too closely events prior to the first and second world wars. And it's made me realise that the Cold War never ended; it was just in a frozen state and is now beginning to thaw.

The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.
The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.

The truth of war is far worse than hell itself. The lives destroyed goes further than just those who die on or off the battlefield; it stabs into the hearts of the communities and families left behind. It scars the land and the psyche of people for generations. Nothing brought that home to me more than when I visited Stonehaven, Scotland last year. There is a memorial to the WWI and WWII dead on a hilltop there and it's a heartbreaking site. Stonehaven is a small fishing town, and was probably very similar to Irvine, the small seaside town my family are from in Scotland. Everyone would have known each other. And the list of dead in Stonehaven, particularly from WWI, is a long one. This site has the full list, along with those from WWII, and it's clear whole families were decimated. The inscription on the inside of the memorial reads: 

ONE BY ONE DEATH - CHALLENGED THEM - ONE BY ONE THEY - SMILED IN HIS - GRIM VISAGE - AND REFUSED - TO BE DISMAYED

The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.

There doesn't seem any simple solution to the problems in the Middle East or in Ukraine, but there is surely a better path than one of conflict. Diplomacy, long term perspectives and negotiation with true resilience needs to be the driving force, rather than short-term gain. And for that it's going to take people, all people, to reject hatred, violence and blame. Some think that's a naive position, one built on hope and not reality. But South Africa showed how even the most divided nation can move on from atrocity. Even Ireland, despite the viciousness and long lasting hatred that had built up, is moving on. Because people rejected violence and condemned those who committed it, no matter whose side they were on, no matter in whose name they did it. They forgave, or at best learnt to live with their pain, and moved on. I truly hope all of us, including myself, can learn those lessons.

View from The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Friends, Romans, Countrymen and Some Flash Fiction

Slowly but surely I'm getting back into the swing of things after my holiday. I always end up a bit off balance when I return from being away, especially when I really, really enjoyed myself and can only think about going back again. In this case I went to Rome, which was one of my "must-see-before-I-die" places. And it did not disappoint in the slightest. I got to see almost all of the cool ancient Roman stuff, and squeezed in the Vatican, the river Tiber and the Castel Sant'Angelo (I didn't know what it was either, apart from it being in Assassin's Creed games). There was even a top floor on my hotel to sunbathe on with a pool. Absolute heaven.

Rather than do a big old travelogue post I thought I'd write a short story inspired by that beautiful city and its crazy, wonderful inhabitants and the huge amount of history it has.



Proserpina

  Hurrying through the cobbled, narrow streets my eyes watch my feet, determined not to trip once again.
  Tourists wander past, their gazes drawn to the surrounding walls. All I feel is a sense of confinement, a desperation to escape these towering structures, their facades seeming to crumble before my eyes.
 Reaching the top of the Spanish Steps, a groan escapes my drawn lips. The crowds are thick and oblivious to others, soaking up the sun so the passage through is small and ever-shifting. Taking a deep breath of the hot air, the stench of humanity thick in it, I steel myself and dive into their depths, asking for forgiveness rather than permission as I hurry past them. Most barely notice me, but a few, mainly children, turn and stare as my thick skirts swish past them. Others do a double take, smiling before turning to their fellows to mention me. By the time they turn back I will be gone.
  The sun is high in the sky but I don't have much time. I have to reach the fountain before the sun starts to dip. Cars screech and honk when I run across the road, but no more than they always do in this loud, cacophonous place.
  Finally I reach the piazza, with the lone fountain spurting forth life itself. I slow my pace, a sudden reluctance making my feet drag. Here I am, in the bright light of day, about to give it all up again. But it is the price I must pay. That I will always pay.
  I step over the slack chain that lines the fountain edge and step into the blessedly cool water, glittering topaz and green. There suddenly seems to be few people around as I reach out with my left hand, the ring on my third finger glinting darkly, even in the bright of day. As always, I hesitate, wondering if there is a way. A way to not got back. The exact same thought I have every year before I come here and when I leave. But I know I could never give up that other place entirely, whatever my mother may tell herself; no matter what she tells me when I'm within earshot. Just as I know I can never entirely give up this place either, or the maternal figure always waiting for me.
  My fingers brush the carving of Romulus and Remus suckling on their mother's teats, her wolf's head staring deep into me. Another strong mother figure. Is there ever a way to fully escape them?
  A whirling of light and water surround me, almost drowning me and suddenly I am no longer in the daylight. There is no heat upon my shoulders, no smell of cars, sweat and dreams. Instead there is only blessed coolness, the scent of just fallen rain and the shadows.
  "My love, you have returned at last. I feared you would change your mind."
  The same words. The same words every year and yet my heart beats that little bit faster, and I close my eyes in anticipation as I turn around and open them to look upon my husband.
  "I will always return to you my dark one. Not even my mother can keep us apart forever."
  With the ritual words out of the way he embraces me, his hands cold against my back but his eyes glowing with a fire I could never resist. The same fire that made me leave with him all those many moons ago.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Can Art Be Separated From A Flawed Creator?

Trigger warning: This post features links to accounts of sexual abuse and rape, though details in the actual post are minimal.

Here in Britain we're currently going through seemingly never ending discoveries of sexual abuse at the hands of people in powerful positions. Rolf Harris, the much loved presenter of Rolf's Cartoon Club and Animal Hospital, was convicted on twelve counts of indecent assault and sentenced to five years and nine months. Prior to that Max Clifford, was sentenced to eight years for a string of indecent assaults and it's common knowledge now what Jimmy Saville was up to, though without a trial his accusations will remain forever unproven.

Gathering less attention, but certainly something that seems fatefully timed, has been the revelations about the science fiction and fantasy writer Marion Zimmer Bradley. There had been conjecture about her, and even certainty that she'd covered up her husband's crimes of rape and abuse of boys.  She admitted as much in her deposition in 1998, with the transcript leaving no room for doubt. But far more shocking, to me at least, is the heart wrenching account from her own daughter, Moira Greyland, revealing that Marion Zimmer Bradley herself was committing sexual assault, among other types of abuse, towards her throughout her childhood. And that there may be others. It isn't easy reading and I felt physically ill reading Greyland's poem, "Mother's Hands", but Greyland's words are incredibly moving and brave and deserve to be read.

So far I've never read any of Bradley's works. Interestingly she was never a writer my mum rated much, and as I experienced Science Fiction and Fantasy through my mum's collection it meant I wasn't really all that aware of her. There was a copy of Mists of Avalon on mum's shelf but I never got round to it. I have it on my wish list but I'm in no hurry to read it. I'm not in favour of blacklisting artwork even if it's created by a monster though. Sometimes even the most evil of people can create something of worth or meaning to others. I can't imagine what these revelations will do to those who loved Bradley's writing, who got started on the writing path because of reading her work or submitting stories to her anthologies. One has pledged to give all of her profits from the stories she got published that way to RAINN, America's largest anti-sexual violence charity. It's a wonderful way to handle the dichotomy of being proud of work you've done, even though it's connected to someone who has done such terrible things.

Australian councils are working to remove all Rolf Harris artwork from their buildings and in the local areas, and the price of his art has plummeted since his conviction. Likewise, I imagine less SF and Fantasy fans will be interested in reading Bradley's works. But I don't think what someone does in their life, no matter how horrendous, means their creations should be destroyed. If that were the case we wouldn't have a lot of the classical music, paintings or stories we have today. Then there's the question of the value you can get from art created by undesirables. My mum's response when I told her about all this was that she'd always felt there was something a bit "off" in Bradley's works, even though she fit the feminist, female, science fiction writer mould that my mum prefers. She couldn't put her finger on it, but said she wasn't entirely surprised by the revelations about Bradley.

It's often claimed that art can reveal far more of the artist than they intend, and for that reason alone I won't write off the chances of me reading a Bradley book one day. My interpretation of her works will be heavily influenced by what I know, just as reading Mein Kampf or looking at one of Hitler's paintings is impossible to separate from what he was responsible for. It's also a lot easier when the perpetrator is deceased; because no matter what you think of their art, at least you know they aren't benefiting from your purchase. At the same time though I can completely understand people never wanting material near them that was created by someone who committed terrible crimes or atrocities. Because even though art can exist on its own merits, it is always, inevitably, entwined with the person who created it.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Book Review: Frozen In Time

Frozen In Time
Ali Sparkes
2013
Kindle Edition

Every now and again I buy a book simply because of the description, without reading a sample. Something about it makes my eyebrow meet my hairline and I'm intrigued enough to make that knee-jerk purchase. Frozen in Time is one of the few that's done this, and it did not disappoint me.

Very much based on the Enid Blyton mysteries, Frozen in Time is set in modern times, with siblings Ben and Rachel condemned to a dull, wet summer in their countryside house. Their parents are away and all they're left with is a broken TV, no internet and their erratic Uncle, who is more interested in his latest experiment than entertaining two pre-teens. As soon as the weather clears up, they make their escape into the woods. But the storms have revealed something; a hatch leading into an underground vault, where two children have been cryogenically frozen since the 1950s. Suddenly Ben and Rachel's summer isn't so boring.

I really wish I could have read this book when I was ten. Seriously, it would have been one of my favourite books of all time. It has mystery, science fiction, conspiracies and just enough tension to keep you turning the pages. There is also a lot to enjoy as an adult, in particular the references to 1950s mores, especially with the shift in gender-dynamics since then. The language changes are also played with and the teasing of Enid Blyton type exclamations are, well; just super. The story is great, and would be a wonderful way to introduce younger readers to the Cold War in a fictional setting.

Highly recommended for anyone who doesn't mind reading books for younger readers and especially for younger readers themselves. With no swearing or inappropriate violence or sexual imagery it's a safe book to buy for the kid in your life just hungering for some time bending adventure.

Monday, 30 June 2014

The New Job Begins

Like a lot of folks, I've never really known what I want to do with my life. It always seemed to change day to day, depending upon what cool film or book I'd recently read. This used to worry me a lot, especially in the education years, when apparently everyone was planning their career path with military like precision. Or at least that's what the career planners would have you believe; what I saw was a bunch of kids just as confused as me, with a few of them genuinely knowing what they wanted to do, and the rest just doing whatever their parents wanted them.

I think the key problem I've always had is that I'm interested in too many things, like a magpie is interested in the shiny. Some would say "fickle" - I would say versatile. The idea of only doing one thing for the rest of my days makes me hyperventilate in terror. This inevitably means I've tended to accidentally end up in jobs, just so I have money coming in but with the hope I may be able to make something of it and possibly, if the wind blows the right way, even enjoy it.

This is how I became a manager for a Catalogue team for LOVEFiLM way back in 2007, after nearly three years in the customer services section. Catalogue work mainly involves trying to keep up with the latest DVD/Blu-ray release schedules so that people can add them to a rental list, and we can send that title to them after they send the last one back. If you don't know how online DVD rental works by now you likely never will, as it seems to have had its heyday and is inevitably being superseded by streaming. I've had the same four discs sitting in my living room for… two weeks? Three? A while anyway. And I continually forget to send them back. [Note to self: put those discs in an envelope and in your bag!] I still get to watch cool stuff via online rental though, so will keep it up as long as it's on offer. And as long as I get my staff discount…

Even without the dawning of a new age I've been wanting to move on to do something else for a while now. I don't want much from my day job, but the bear minimum is to be intellectually challenged and busy. Neither of these things have been happening with any regularity for years now. Finally though, after many job applications and many disappointments, I have got another role to move into, starting today. And I don't even have to change building as I got a position with the Merchandising team for Amazon Instant Video. Yep, that's right; I work for the megalith, big bad/last great hope, saviour of books/destroyer of books, Amazon. My desire to be self-published and a successful novelist came first but it has crossed my mind that it won't hurt being one floor below the Kindle team.

It's been a strange path, and I have been super sad to say goodbye to some amazing people who have moved onto new pastures these last few months. But I'll admit it; I'm pleased I get to stay at Amazon. It's going to be really odd to not know what I'm doing, after so long being able to sleepwalk my way through the day, but I couldn't be happier. I'm already seeing the shift it's caused in my extracurricular activities. There's nothing more destructive to creativity than being bored all day long (this is true for me at any rate) and the writing has definitely benefited from my brain being bamboozled during these last few weeks when I've been learning about the new job. I have no doubt there will be challenging days ahead* but I feel that not only have I moved in the right direction, but that I once again have a direction to move in. Not bad for someone who's still winging it.


*I can hear everyone I work with laughing and someone saying "You know nothing Jon Snow".

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Strange World of Guilty Pleasures

There's been a recent kerfuffle over whether adults should or should not be embarrassed about reading Young Adult books. The original article in Slate came in for some criticism which the author, Ruth Graham of the original piece, has responded to as best as a critic can, though it seemed to boil down to, "what I think is a worthy book is good, anything else is not". It got me thinking overall about the strange phenomena known as "guilty pleasures" and why exactly we should feel bad about liking something.

The only media I have ever felt that my tastes may be judged is music. This is what happens when you have an ex-folk singer for a Mum and a late-60s/early-70s rock connoisseur for a Dad. I admit it changed my listening habits growing up, so I refused to even listen to mainstream Pop (or did so secretly on the radio on my Walkman) and I was a huge Indie Rock fan in the 90s. As it happens I do generally prefer Rock and Alternative over other types of music. But I no longer bar Pop music from my iPod; I have a collection of Beyonce, Lady Gaga and even Ms. Spears (among many others) that I listen to when I want a bit of light relief. Some of it is "good" and some of it is not, if such subjective measurements can ever really be assigned to something as personal as music. But I like the songs, which is ultimately all that matters. And yes, I take great pleasure in telling my parents this and arguing with them that Lady Gaga is actually really rather good if you give her a try. They remain unconvinced. I remain unrepentant. We talk about other things.

My current read and to be read pile #5
So, which of these books am I meant to feel guilty about exactly?
Graham's assertions seem a bit odd to me and I've long wondered why one piece of art or media is more deserving than another. I've done my duty and read or tried to read the classics;

  • Great Expectations - dull, only ever get to the fourth or fifth chapter before I give up
  • Moby Dick - good, but massively racist and the language is so hard to read with this damned 21st century perspective.
  • War and Peace - just no.
  • Pride and Prejudice - love, love, love. I've reread it so many times I now have two versions; one well thumbed and one intact for future read-throughs.
  • The Odyssey - adore and again have re-read countless times.

The only thing the books I like have in common is that I like them. Yes, there's common features such as interesting female characters, magical or supernatural elements or explorations of far flung worlds and future times. But I'll give anything a go, especially in film and TV (takes less time to consume so even if I don't like it I won't have lost more than a few hours of my life) so the idea I should feel guilty for enjoying something just seems… odd. If I like a thing all it says is that I like it. Nothing more. It may mean a friend of mine likes it too, if we share the same tastes. Then again, maybe it won't. But no one needs to be embarrassed or feel guilty, regardless whether we both like a thing or don't.

A big part of this whole discussion over "guilty pleasures" or keeping your penchant for glittering vampires secret, is simply snobbery; some folks think they're better than others and they use a person's taste in entertainment to justify that view. I'll be perfectly honest here and say I have much the same problem but in reverse; I have no time for literary novels and watch very few (if any) art films or "serious" films. I generally find them boring and tedious, which inevitably makes me judge people who like these things with the assumption that they likely share these characteristics. It's wrong and unfair, but it is what it is. However I would never tell them they shouldn't watch or read in these genres. That's none of my business. I wonder how long it will be before the favour is returned the other way? In the meantime I'll continue to watch my Buffy the Vampire Slayer on repeat, cheer away to Kaiju being hit in the face by giant robots and delve into the latest novel (YA or otherwise) that feature vampires, assassins, sorceresses, the undead, aliens, conspiracies or any combination of the above.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Older and A Little Bit Wiser

I celebrated my birthday last week. I kind of stopped caring about birthdays after the big three-oh, but I like to take time off work when it comes around and this year was no different. Me and boyfriend spent the day itself seeing things in London that we haven't bothered to look at before. That's the weird thing about living in this city; everyday you're near all this incredibly cool history, art and activities but you rarely bother with it, let alone notice it.

Got to scratch the cow's head - think she was surprised I wanted to.
We started the day in Mudchute Farm and if you haven't been I highly recommend. It's a small working farm with a "pet corner" for your standard rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens and other birds. Oh, and a chipmunk who hid right at the top of his enclosure so he looked like he was trapped against the wooden roof. He was faking though; I saw him move to another section at the back. Chipmunks - can't be trusted.

Horsie coming for a scratch; or food. Either way I win.
They also have cows, a pig, llamas and most importantly, horses. I've had a love for horses all my life, even when they scared me as a kid (seriously, think how huge horses are to an eight-year-old). They're as close as I'm likely to get to a unicorn so I have a strong desire to pet them whenever I see them. I was delighted that two of them came up for a scratch and a nibble at my fingers. The second that came up to me left as soon as he realised I had no food for him. Note to self; take carrots next time for bribery.

Am I the only one who fantasises about climbing the rigging on ships?
Afterwards we went to the Cutty Sark and walked around it for a bit. I love old clippers and ships. In fact boats of any description. Maybe it's something in the blood; allegedly one of my great, great uncles was the cabin boy on the Cutty Sark sometime in the late 1800s. I couldn't see his name on any of the logs though. Mum claims it's because they don't list cabin boys. I wonder if he didn't just live the life of Riley in London at the time he claimed to be on board… WE WILL NEVER KNOW.

It was lovely seeing my gorgeous city from some new angles and kind of mirrored how I'm seeing my life at the moment; looking at the same old thing from new viewpoints and finding much I love that I didn't know was there or didn't appreciate enough before. I have a new job coming up as a merchandiser, and my hobbies are giving me joy again rather than frustration. Can't say there's any great secret to it all; I've just relaxed more and yet become a lot more focused at the same time. I have a life plan (twenty-year-old me is laughing hysterically at this point), I'm a regular gym goer and reaping the physical and health benefits (twenty-year-old me is now shaking her head and calling me a sell-out) and I've finally, after many attempts, got the job I've wanted for years.

Now… bring me that horizon.
I have no doubt there are rocks ahead and shoals I may get beached on. Hopefully with the positive outlook, and a plan I can fall back on if I start to feel lost, I should be able to get myself back out onto the exciting seas, no matter what comes.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Short Story Competition - RAC Driving Abroad

I'm going to do a new feature on the blog, where I'll try to find writing competitions that are opening for submissions. Generally I'm not a huge fan of competitions, especially those that ask for payment to enter. But they can be a good place to try out your skills, especially if they're free. I'll avoid adding any that in my biased opinion are rubbish and not worth the time. The criteria for good competitions are:

1. Cost to enter (lower the better)
2. Prestige; is winning this thing something you would want to have on your cover letter?
3. The prize; is the reward worth the words you'll be scribing? A competition that only wants a 500 word story for a top prize of £500 is pretty good but one that wants 5000 words for the same may not be worth the hassle.

I'll try to do this as a weekly roundup normally but for this week I'm going to link to a single competition that the RAC are running, called their Driving Abroad Writing Competition. Essentially they're after 1000 words maximum based on the theme of driving in Europe. More details in the link but first prize is £500 and free RAC European Breakdown cover for a year. Runners up win £100 in M&S vouchers.

Closing date is September 11th 2014; get writing you would be travellers!