2023 Reading Round-Up

I read 32 books in 2024. I’d love it if I’d had more reading time, but often when I set a high reading goal for the year, it makes reading feel stressful. I’m rushing to finish a book when really, I should be enjoying it. So, no regrets!

Here are my top reads from the year, and of course, my very favourite quote from each. Because I have tried over the years to savour books better, I always pause after finishing one and write down my favourite quotes.

As to how I mark the pages of my favourite quotes while I’m reading… I exercise my right of protection against self-incrimination on that.

Quote in my daily calendar for 2023

Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris
A master intrigue-builder, Harris sneaks suspense in through everyday details and seemingly idyllic settings. The setting here is a boys’ grammar school, secretly crumbling. Since I work in a school, semi-snarky descriptions of teachers and students amuse me.

“Although listening to boys is bad enough, listening to their parents is fatal.”

Cuckoo in the Nest by Fran Hill
I love Fran’s writing, particularly her hearty humour which is specific without being sharp. Her debut novel gives voice to a wonderfully insightful adolescent character entering foster care. This book is a real gift with its empathy to all characters involved.

“I could have done with help defending myself against the way Bridget would experience the emotions she thought I should be having.”

Not Quite an Ocean by Elizabeth M Castillo
Castillo deftly balances beauty and decay, peace and turmoil. Her latest volume explores womanhood through the metaphor of the ocean, inspiring us to reflect on our journey with awe and compassion. Women, the sea, what’s not to love? 

From “Who Will Hold the Ocean?” 
“Who will teach her that the darkest parts of her body are where creatures are the most boneless, and bright?
Who will dismantle the great, iron skeletons of conquest that lie rotting, eating away at her throat, and back teeth?”

Braver by Deborah Jenkins
I adore a story with a diverse cast. In some respects, this novel is as simple as a little group of people banding together to help each other out. But of course the tug of each individual’s needs pulls events into a tangle. 

“There’s the smell of grass and that scented summer air that drifts into your very soul and makes you believe in the safe familiarity of things.”

The Binding by Bridget Collins
Set in a world where books can only be made when a person is “bound,” surrendering their memory to the page. This results in all sorts of secrets and shocking twists. It’s also an incredibly moving love story. 

Summer Solstice 2023

“It makes one wonder who would write them. People who enjoy imagining misery, I suppose… People who can spend days writing a long sad lie without going insane.”

Salt Lick by Lulu Allison
This haunting epic takes place in a climate-wrought [near?] future dystopia, observed by a Shakespearean-style chorus…comprised of rewilded cows. Between flooded coasts and strict urban areas, various communities help each other and revive hope.

“We see you, boy
We see your gentle heart
Keep it carefully
It has work to do”

Game Changer by Neal Shusterman
A high school football player finds himself in an altered version of his universe every time he gets concussed. Each shift highlights issues of race, class, gender and sexuality, and raises questions. What makes us who we are–and how easily could it change?

“If life exists four hundred times smaller than we can see, it must exist four hundred times larger than we can see.”

March by Geraldine Brooks
The imaginary father of Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters in Little Women is the protagonist here. We see his part in slavery, Civil War battles, and early attempts at Reconstruction. Through him, Brooks unforgettably lays bare the national shame.

“And yet I do not think it heroic to march into fields of fire, whipped on one’s way only by fear of being called craven. Sometimes, true courage requires inaction; that one sit at home while war rages, if by doing so one satisfies the quiet voice of honourable conscience.” 

Goodrich Castle, Wales, June 2023

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Written during World War II, this novel alchemically combines some of my favourite elements: a precocious narrator passionate about writing, an eccentric family among castle ruins, class struggle, explorations of love and art. 

“‘Anyway, your father had a very distinguished forerunner. God made the universe an enigma.’
“I said, ‘And very confusing it’s been for everybody. I don’t see why Father had to copy Him.’”

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
A brilliant homage to David Copperfield transplanting Dickens’s expansive cast to coal country, western Virginia in the late 1990s/ early 2000s. It exposes the disadvantages and downright exploitation in rural areas, while also inspiring us with the resilience and compassion of many who live there.

“… Wanting to see the rest of us hurt because she was hurting–You have to wonder how much of the whole world’s turning is fueled by that very fire.”

Are any of these your favourites too, or do you have recommendations to add?

Celebrating Books

This Week’s Bit of String: An air of incredulity

“Miss, how are there people who like to read?” 

I’d been scribing answers to questions about Lord of the Flies while the severely dyslexic GCSE student dictated. He was then curious about why there are “neeks” (the word “geek” has evolved) like me who actually enjoy books.

“Well,” I told him, “I got to like reading because I was taught so many different books at school, I knew there were loads of great options.”

The openness of the question surprised me and I should perhaps have been more emotive, told him how reading takes me out of my own life and into different worlds. Or that it’s easily as entertaining as TV. I wish I’d had more time to tell him that with books, there really is something for everyone. As long as they can access it–which unfortunately, he physically cannot. 

I wonder if this young man gets the sense of luxuriousness from playing videogames which we find with books. Books free us from having to compete. They offer immersive surrender, and that’s what I crave sometimes. It’s liberation from being in life’s driver’s seat.

Hay Castle: “Love detonates this distance between us to ash holds your flooded heart in the fire of night”

Again, this only works if you can access it. We all go through stages when there simply isn’t time to read much. Sometimes I find myself reading with a grim desperation to tick books off my reading list. 

I remind myself that this is love. As with any relationship, we sometimes get caught up in our duties of care; keeping everyone fed and happy. But the love is there. When it comes to reading, I ensure I take the time to write down my favourite quotes, to reflect in my daily scribbles, before starting something else. It’s not a chore.

Burrowing and Borrowing

I spent last weekend at Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival. If you ever need to rekindle your love for reading, it’s a great place to do so. Sunny but chilled, colourful yet somewhat calming. I guess that’s because even though I’m among crowds, they feel like my people.

Not that Hay’s festival-goers are in any way homogenous. As with writers, there are all sorts of readers. Young and old, Welsh or English or from further abroad, people in motorised wheelchairs or with support dogs. At an evening talk I also noticed another woman on her own, like me, pencilling tiny notes.

Hay Festival 2023

In both the first talks I went to, though they were on very different topics, the writers talked about being magpie-like in storing and selecting detail. Marina Hyde, the Guardian columnist on current events, peppers her pieces with pop culture references. Peter Frankopan, a passionate historian who’s recently written about natural disasters throughout history, drew on so many different sources he ended up with 4000 footnotes in his latest book.

Later I enjoyed wonderful readings from the poet laureate Simon Armitage. He opened with “Thank You for Waiting” (have a listen here!) and he talked about how hard it was during lockdown to be inspired without everyday interactions and excursions. He calls those the “cement” which sticks our writing together. Trying to create in his upstairs office, he found himself writing poems about Velux windows.

The reason there are enough books in the world to interest any reader is because writers are so diverse. And maybe when we love our art enough, we can find ways to write about anything.

Safety in the Pages

Beyond offering inclusion, books throughout history have bestowed security. We listened to Irene Vallejo talk about her volume Papyrus, which uncovers the history of the written word. She shared stories of the library of Alexandria, and told us how things changed with the development of the Latin codex.

Bookish street art in Hay. Is it secret? Is it safe?

The codex, with similar etymological roots to the word book, means block of wood, or tree trunk. Instead of being a long, flattened scroll you’d have to roll back up for storage, the codex used sheets bound together like modern books.

This change wasn’t just culturally significant. It also made reading a safer hobby. In times of religious persecution, for example, Christians could read in codex form. Should someone come along, they could close the codex and stow it away as a humble block, thus keeping secret the substance of their reading.

I loved learning this bit of history. Even now, in our privileged times, there’s something reassuring about wandering around an event where lots of people have books under their arms or noses. Just a bunch of bookworms sharing a common love if not common tastes, and although there are plenty of magpies about, they’re the curious rather than vicious kind.

What makes you fall in love with reading?

Over the Rainbow

This Week’s Bit of String: A few hundred definite articles

When I was young and had energy–aged three, to be exact–I started eschewing naps. My mother would put me down for a “Quiet Time” instead, with a stack of books to look through. I knew their stories well, but I wanted to properly read them. Logically I started at the beginning, and as my mother settled me down, I asked what the first word of the top book’s title was.

It was “The,” as in The Wizard of Oz. Now able to read my first word, I went through every book I had and counted how many times “the” appeared in my books. I kept counting wherever I went, well up into the hundreds, until I noticed the word “there,” and counted those. I was in the midst of counting “thens” when all the other words started making sense and I lost count, too busy reading. Sucked into new realms.

Our copy of The Wizard of Oz was a big, almost A3-sized book with illustrations based on the film version. Since it became my first reading experience, I have a soft spot for the story–but clearly I was already drawn to it, since it inspired me to try and read in the first place.

Real Life or Dreams

One thing that bothered me about the movie was how it framed Dorothy’s whole adventure as a dream. I preferred the Chronicles of Narnia, in which all that happened was incontrovertibly real, just occurring in a different dimension (which I tried to reach through many a wardrobe). I felt it diminished Dorothy’s experiences to portray them as just a dream.

Even now, I get a bit ruffled when creators use the “But was it all a dream?” cliche. Hopefully this doesn’t make me too simplistic or uncultured, but I like reality clearly delineated. If an unreliable narrator misleads us for their own ends, or for their own survival, or if they’ve been misled, I’m all in and I have colossal respect for the storytelling (Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Fingersmith, Life of Pi). But if, for example, a TV show or film implies the entire premise has only happened in a character’s mind, as one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tried to do, I’m offended. How dare the whole plot be minimised in this way?

The secondary school where I work just finished an energetic, 6-performance run of The Wizard of Oz. My husband played in the band and I helped a bit with front of house and quick changes. When a production ends, it’s like waking up from a dream. There’s that sudden cessation of energy and the unwinding of a massive, intricate knot as everyone goes their separate ways.

It struck me, watching it again after a long while, that actually the way the story unfolds is just the way a child might imagine it. As a conquering hero, but innocent, with devoted friends and all sorts of magic. It’s not a diminishment of childhood experience, it’s an ode to their imagination, and I was quite moved by it.

Haunted Forests

It also serves as a reminder that even in our heads, even as children, we’re not completely safe. I don’t know any child capable of constructing a fantasy where nothing bad happens. Otherwise, how would we prove our heroism, and our comparative innocence? Dorothy tries to invent a place where there isn’t any trouble, but trouble gets in anyway.

Dreaming in colour

It’s all those anxieties about the future and those fearful spectres from our past creeping up. “Just try to stay out of my way,” they cackle. “Just TRY.”

One of the reasons I’m quite sensitive about stories being dismissed as “all in your head” derives from my experience in a psychiatric ward when I was 12. I was withdrawn and always thinking about stories. The staff wrote in my records that I seemed to be “responding to internal stimuli” and I was put on anti-hallucination medication.

“Are you hearing voices?” the psychiatrist, a toneless woman with an unfortunate resemblance to Jabba the Hutt, asked.

“No.”

“Are the voices telling you to say that?”

“No.”

But the doctors had become too entrenched in their own reality to decipher mine.

Fortunately, the pills didn’t affect my imaginings in the slightest; I could still escape. It shocks me that it never occurred to those medical professionals that a young patient would wish to imagine things outside the immediate reality of strip searches, iron-meshed windows and straitjacketed children screaming for help.

In my opinion, it should have been as obvious as Dorothy dreaming her way from black and white into colour. I suppose it proves how powerful our inner lives are; they can transport us so fully that people watching us have no idea where we’ve gone. I probably looked as if I was responding to internal stimuli when I was three years old counting “thes” and “thens,” and I go round mouthing dialogue to myself sometimes even now. I know what I’ve made up though, and what I haven’t. You can see why I’d find it irksome if someone tried to tell me otherwise.

What takes you over the rainbow? Has it ever gotten you into trouble?

Learning Something New

This Week’s Bit of String: What poems, jellyfish, and King Tut have in common

I am starting 2023 building a new habit. I feel like that sounds more promising than a resolution, what do you think? Anyway, this habit is to learn something new every day.

I think we all learn stuff most days. Part of the reason I relish daily scribbles is because it teases out new information I glean without necessarily noticing. It’s also why I stop after each book I’ve read and write down my favourite quotes, instead of charging on to the next one. Just a little bit of reflection time. Because my mind’s always leaping to the next thing I absolutely MUST get done; the next book to tick off the To-Be-Read list; the next job to cross off from my planner. I’m very susceptible to the look-at-all-the-things-I’ve-done narrative on social media and I have to force myself to stop and reflect. I had to make it a part of my routine, a habit.

My dad used to ask us at the dinner table, “What did you learn at school today?”

We hated it. On principle, we often insisted we’d not learned a thing. And that may have been true some days. We expected that anything learned would be unmistakably gifted to us, not always understanding that we might need to flip through the resources and find what needed to be learned.

Time to turn over a new leaf…

So with this learning habit I’m working to develop, the rule is that the Something I learn for the day can’t be part of my normal reading. It has to be something extra, something I take time to look up and find out about. It IS allowed to be a poem or short story outside of my pre-planned reading list, for example delving into an online literary magazine, as long as it’s not just because I’m prepping my own submission for it.

The idea is to take in information or art for its own sake, free of agenda. To shake myself from the constant bridle of Getting Things Done, and just stretch my brain.

It’s also to repurpose scrolling time. As I mentioned earlier this year, I want to waste less time on social media. I haven’t been terrible about scrolling and spending time online, but I could do better. Instead of scanning Facebook and Twitter, brain on autopilot, just waiting for something salient to jump out at me, I will go and seek salience myself.

So far, my new habit has entailed:

Finding out about early British underground buildings like fogous and souterrains, because for her novel my student has created a Secret Hunting Society which lives in a village hidden underground.

Cooking dinners ahead for the week while listening to these fantastic Intelligence Squared videos featuring William Sieghart’s The Poetry Pharmacy

And this Intelligence Squared Dickens vs. Tolstoy debate, Simon Schama arguing on the latter’s behalf and sharing this Tolstoy quote: “The aim of the artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its manifestations.” (Makes it sound a bit simpler and more feasible, do you reckon?)

Research on jellyfish because I made a little ShrinkyDink jellyfish while crafting with my sisters over Christmas and I added it to my keychain

Reading some lovely poems from Plume Magazine— I particularly loved “The Classics” by Christina Lee and “Cathedral” by Kwame Dawes

Finding out about aphantasia, since another student believes she has it. People with aphantasia don’t see imagery in their minds, which makes it harder for her to connect with material she reads.

Jellyfish!

Researching Tutankhamun because the latest Royal Mail stamps for sending letters abroad have his possessions on them, and I was wondering… Do those really belong to this country?

Looking more deeply into a January 6, 1853 train accident that claimed the life of President Franklin Pierce’s only child just two months before Pierce’s inauguration, because it was alluded to in A Worse Place Than Hell, the book I’m reading. Pierce was the only president to ever hail from my home state, and it surprised me I’d never heard of this tragedy, when it must have heavily influenced his actions during a pivotal period.

Also, trying to find out about women runners in the 19th century because this nonfiction work mentions Louisa May Alcott going running in the early mornings before her long shifts at a Civil War hospital. I’m very curious about what women would have worn for morning runs in the 1860s, and I’ve found some interesting facts about the history of women runners but nothing that illuminates this passage, so if you know anything about it, do let me know.

The different types of attention that may be compromised by social media use, as outlined by Johann Hari on Jon Favreau’s Offline podcast. It rather motivated me to keep going with this little habit of mine!

Do have any suggestions of things I should learn about? What sorts of things have you sought to learn?

2022 Reading Round-Up

My top ten books from the year again feature quite heavily from independent publishers and writers I know… mostly writers I met on Twitter. So that medium has something good going for it, although in the year to come, I will attempt to convert some of my scrolling time to reading time. Might get through a few more books that way, don’t you reckon?

Cajoncito by Elizabeth M. Castillo

Multilingual poet Castillo gifts us this volume of English and Spanish poems. When she writes about love and loss, it’s as if she’s peeled back layers to say things I didn’t know how to. Many of her thoughts use metaphors of ink and pages, which were beautiful and also motivating to me as a writer. Particularly the first piece, “Can I Send You My Poems?” is perfection.

…Can I cleave
my way, breathless, across the seas? Can I scale
the mountains erected defiantly between us? Fight, bare-knuckled, the beasts that live at altitude?

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

I love Anne Tyler’s family sagas. Her characters are always so real, so nuanced and quirky, and the dynamics between them so plausibly fraught, I am amazed at where she finds the inspiration to keep developing such individual ones. I like her straightforward, often humorous style, as well.

But still, you know how it is when you’re missing a loved one. You try to turn every stranger into the person you were hoping for. You hear a certain piece of music and right away you tell yourself that he could have changed his clothing style, could have gained a ton of weight, could have acquired a car and then parked that car in front of another family’s house. ‘It’s him!’ you say. ‘He came! We knew he would; we always…’ But then you hear how pathetic you sound, and your words trail off into silence, and your heart breaks.

A Snow Garden and Other Stories by Rachel Joyce

These short stories are somewhat festively themed, and they reflect the heartache and joy of the holidays. There’s a fun modern-day nativity story, the title piece is haunting, and the final story quite lovely—but my favourite was the first, “A Faraway Smell of Lemon,” which seemed sort of an homage to Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” with its great, moving simplicity.

Binny’s words echo in the silence. The young woman nods. And because she does not reply, because she does not fight Binny’s words, because she does not soften or dilute them with a sentence of her own, they fall for the first time. They land. Binny feels their weight, their loss, but the world does not stop or shudder. Yes, she is still standing. She is still breathing.

The opportunities we discover thanks to books! Braunton Burrows, Devon, UK

The Shadows We Cast by Sarah Tinsley

This is a real page-turner and a true feat of dramatic irony. As readers we know the twist from the start, and we’re desperate to know how the characters will work it out. It’s also an unflinching look at the aftermath of sexual assault, assigning the event its rightful significance while also developing the protagonist fully so she’s not at all defined by it. There’s so much to unpack in this book, I’ve reflected on it further here.

Coming here should have made it better, a distraction from the dreams that left her blunt and smudged. She feels like an echo.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

A travel memoir about dealing with tragedy by hiking the South West Coast Path, I may have particularly enjoyed it because I love that region anyway. I saved the book for when we were clifftop camping in North Devon, and thanks to Winn’s narrative, I found out about Braunton Burrows and we had a marvelous trek over the sand dunes. The book is candid and searching, but often also fun and irreverent.

We hide ourselves so well, exposing our skin in youth when it has nothing to say, but the other skin, with the record of time and event, the truth of life, we rarely show.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

The perfect read for cold January, this surreal, slightly gothic sort of mystery. I was tempted to start naming months in the way the protagonist takes to doing: The Month of Steadfastly Accumulating Tiredness, perhaps. But I don’t have the knack Clarke does. It’s an intriguing concept and so cleverly told.

Perhaps even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the World in ways you would rather not.

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

You know I love a book about a book. Possession, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, and this novel by Krauss, are examples of a literary investigation which unfolds into a great personal journey. Here, there’s a book to be translated, and it brings together a girl grieving her father, and a holocaust survivor.

Strange what the mind can do when the heart is giving directions.

I might be needing a bit more bookshelf space in 2023…

Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? by Fran Hill

Fran Hill is a terrifically warm and funny writer, and here’s one volume of her diary-style memoir about teaching secondary school English. This is quite an accomplishment given that a teacher comes into contact with many, many characters. She’s artfully chosen which ones to follow, and tracks relationships efficiently. It’s such an enjoyable read, especially if you work in education.

(Of a Sixth Form English class preparing to read The Handmaid’s Tale) “Rebekah certainly knows her Bible stories. The others hadn’t a clue. Conor thought a Testament was a body part.

Mrs. Narwhal’s Diary by S.J. Norbury

Another enriching, uplifting volume from indie publisher Louise Walters. This one’s in a diary style too, but much more novelesque, with in-depth looks into the protagonist and her family. The point-of-view is bemused and warm, often funny, and all the characters and the setting are so unique. I particularly liked the insights on parenting, and on trying to free a loved one from the clutches of repressed British genealogy.

Why can’t we change other people? Why isn’t there some sort of antidote to their toxic beliefs that we can slip surreptitiously into their tea?

Transcendent Kingdom by Yea Gyasi

This book has so much in it. It’s about families, neuroscience, race, religion, addiction, immigration… The characters were so relatable in their struggle for redemption and belonging, while the story illuminates wider issues of racial justice.

I, too, have spent years creating my little moat of good deeds in an attempt to protect the castle of myself.

Have you shared a love for any of these books? If you haven’t yet, there’s never a bad time to treat yourself. Enjoy!

Never One Thing at a Time

This Week’s Bit of String: The ultimate tear-jerker

Our GCSE students (aged 16) had their last exam this week and took their leave. For the ones we’d worked closely with, we threw a little party with balloons and refreshments. A couple of us got cards and prosecco in return.

“No one got me anything,” joked one of my fellow teaching assistants. “I’m going to cry. I will!” But she couldn’t muster the promised waterworks with us watching.

A last lingering Year 11 girl, the most reluctant to leave, offered this: “I know what will make you cry. It always works: when someone asks, ‘Are you okay?’”

This student is one of the most perceptive people I’ve ever met, let alone one of the most perceptive teens. She was spot on. We’ve all been there, haven’t we, when we’re muddling on in a lonely blur and then someone stops and asks how we are, with genuine interest. 

And there go the floodgates.

The key to these gates will vary, depending on the magnitude and current of what’s behind them. This is not just a female thing, either; guys are equally likely to get triggered by something seemingly small. 

When I first immigrated, I was so alone and the British townspeople were so preoccupied and indifferent, a rare Hello from a stranger had me fighting tears. Since then, I got somewhat inured to being away, able to bumble along preoccupied myself. But when my son moved to America a few weeks ago, leaving me separated from both my best little buddy and my whole family, that changed things.

7 weeks ago

Colleagues know better than to ask if I’m ok. They ask how he’s getting on instead, and the news is generally good. They say, you must miss him so much, which saves me from having to say it. Much of the time, therefore, I maintain equilibrium. There’s a constant ache, a horrifically deep emptiness, dulled by almost-daily messages he and I exchange and by my relentless counting down until I can go see him (5 weeks and 2 days). In some moments it has been piercing, like when I put clean sheets on his bed and wondered if I should keep the pillows how he likes them or stack them tall. Or when I went to send a care package and the post office got grouchy over the extra barcode on the customs sticker.

Triggers are necessary because they give us a choice: Hey, you know that deluge you’re hiding behind the dam? Can we try channeling it, please, before it starts to leak? Sometimes we feel we have to keep refusing, and other times maybe we can’t put it off any longer.

Literary Triggers

At a Retreat West workshop a couple weeks ago, we learned about the importance of having your book’s “inciting incident” right at the beginning, to hook readers in. This is different from the climactic showdown or the big reveal. Often, it’s one small thing that kicks everything else out of inaction.

Rather than the writer throwing a wrench into the protagonist’s works, usually the writer is nudging the protagonist into the uncomfortable realisation that their way of life isn’t really working

Great examples of this are Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, or Piranesi. Eleanor would have kept on refusing any company apart from the Glen’s vodka from Tesco if she hadn’t been sent to that charity concert and developed an ill-advised crush on a singer. Piranesi would have kept wandering the statued halls of The House, recording tide times, if signs of visitors hadn’t begun to appear. 

Mind the falls.

Even when a story begins with a main character choosing to make a change, they often don’t fathom how badly that change is needed or where it will take them. This has been true of literature for as long as storytelling has existed: Chaucer’s pilgrims wouldn’t have realised how much they’d learn on their journey; Romeo had no idea how far he’d go for love when he went to the party to see Rosaline.

When we write stories, we’re not attacking our characters with suffering for the fun of it. Our imaginations have found someone who needs liberation, and we’re plotting a way to spring them free.

For Our Own Protection

In real life, incidents don’t spiral in an orderly manner. It’s not a series of clues and incremental escalation, sometimes it’s everything at once and sometimes it’s like, “Ooh maybe things are about to settle down,” and then bam, another thing hits you. Meet a friend for a catch-up, and as you recount the last couple of months you’ll be thinking, This sequence of events would not fly in fiction. Readers would be too confused.

18 years ago. You never know how things will end up.

Honestly, I’m kind of glad it’s that way. Imagine if our lives progressed more rhythmically. If we were characters in a book and something went wrong, we’d have to ask ourselves, is this trying to teach me a lesson? Is this merely foreshadowing a massive climactic battle later on?

As it is, I can pour myself into work, helping students cope with their own stress and trauma, and I can write my grief into my novel instead of feeling it as my own. I need to edit this story of Eve so she more quickly learns to use her voice; learns that it is her own even if one of her ribs is not. For that to happen, stuff’s got to go wrong, to force her to wonder how she put up with everything, years after being exiled from Eden and then losing her first two sons.

While I work, and work on writing, I can ride it out, 5 weeks and 2 days. It’s already 7 weeks of separation, and there have been plenty of mini-crises to interrupt the trajectory of contemplating my new life: exams and Supreme Court decisions, viruses and injuries, something scurrying in the roofspace when we try to go to sleep. Who knows what else will come up, whether they will keep distracting me from loneliness or force me to confront it. I suspect the former; I’m grateful not to have to slow down.

What about you? Are YOU okay?

Filling Spaces

This Week’s Bit of String: Dragons and evacuees and musicals, oh my…

Confession the First: In second grade I had to write a complete story for school, and I sort of stole it from a computer game. I didn’t know how to invent whole new ideas, and my family had been working through Sierra Entertainment’s King’s Quest games 1 and 2. They were monochromatic with blippy music, but loads of fun. I couldn’t get them out of my mind.

In turn, the games themselves borrowed fairy tale elements, so while I felt as if I should have come up with something original, I also figured borrowing stuff was allowed.

A story starts out as a bunch of objects. Why not begin with whatever ones we want?

I was already skilled at pastiche. Before even starting school, I’d assign my stuffed animals roles based on Narnia characters or von Trapp children from Sound of Music, to enact and sometimes remix my favourite tales. Less than a decade later, I devised a series of novels set during the holocaust. I had a plot but didn’t know enough people to inform strong characterisations (particularly of the male variety; middle school does not offer a rich seam of girl-boy friendships).

So, once again, I borrowed. I had characters based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, and other books I liked. I’ve mentioned this before. They weren’t pristine or even recognisable copies, since I was putting them in different circumstances with different companions. But it helped me to carry on creating when I had a picture in my mind.

Just for the Moment…

In the first King’s Quest game, released in 1980, if you tried to turn your character a certain way in certain frames, or if you generally attempted something not in the programming, a message would pop up on the screen: “You can’t do that—at least not now!”

Sometimes, writing is like that. We have some of the ingredients for a full story, but are missing others. And you have to just put something in as a stopgap, in order to keep going.

At work I’m helping students prepare for exams. Every Year 11 in the country has to take the same subject exams, regardless of special needs or life circumstances. If they don’t pass at age 16 they must keep taking them each year. (I could pour my hatred of this system into several blog posts, ranging in temperature from grouchy to scathing, but I won’t trouble you with it now.) Most of my students have processing issues and biological literacy challenges that impair their ability to even understand the questions, which are set to trip students up anyway.

Still, we tell them to try. If it’s a Maths paper, put down whatever calculations you do and write something for the answer, even if it’s a guess. For the English papers, write as much as you can think of. Just put something down in those blank pages, to increase your chances of a pass.

In standard writing practice, we do something similar. A common exercise to get thoughts and words flowing is to free write for 5-15 minutes. You must keep writing the whole time, and you’re instructed, if you can’t think of something to write, to keep your pencil moving anyway. You can write “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” or “blah blah blah,” but keep writing. Fill in the blanks.

Purloined Persons

Confession the Second: I haven’t written new fiction in almost a year. I have written hundreds of pages, scribbling about my daily life and the odd fleeting idea. I’ve done blog posts. But I haven’t created, I haven’t added building blocks to a story. Lack of time, headspace, energy, you know how it is.

All kinds of building blocks to make this wall.

With the Easter holidays beginning, I decided to give it a go. After all, the longer you wait to do something, the more you believe you’re doomed to fail. Have you found that?

I unearthed a pretty decent story opening. I don’t entirely know what’s meant to happen in it. I’ve not been able to pull advances out of thin air. Why not borrow something, then? What if I take someone I know a little bit about, unpick the thread of a distinguishing characteristic or background detail, and then weave those into some gaps in my story?

It sounds kind of ruthless. Callous, perhaps, to borrow a person’s attributes. I don’t usually consciously do this. But sometimes you just have to fill in the blanks, and once you add to the ingredients you’ve already got, it’s all going to change anyway.

Sometimes a song or a picture will unlock a key element we need for our work. Other times we need a stronger nudge. Having come up with this plan, I managed to write 700 new words in just an hour and a half, even while frequently running off to check on dinner cooking. It’s still my own story, I just needed a bridge from reality into my long-unaccessed imagination. Already, now she’s got some words behind her, the character is finding her voice to tell me all sorts of things distinguishing her from her inspiration. And a story gets reworked so many times, characters evolve drastically.

What tricks do you have for filling gaps? Have there been things you loved so much, they may have shown up in your work, one way or another?

What Moves Us

This Week’s Bit of String: Possible planetary shift

“Miss, is it true that moving the earth even a centimetre out of orbit would basically destroy everything?” 

I’m not certain, Year 11 child who’s supposed to be completing a textbook-based cover lesson on greenhouse gases in the last period of the schoolday. 

If I’d thought critically about what an orbit is, and the way it represents the equilibrium of attraction between two planetary bodies, I would probably have confirmed the student’s query. A change in orbit could trigger sudden prolonged extreme temperatures or just cause the earth to plummet into the sun which, come to that, would be a particularly prolonged temperature change. 

But it’s hard to properly consider an extra theory when you still have remnants of covid brain from less than two weeks ago, and you’re trying to prepare teenagers for exams while fielding queries from cover teacher and students alike, such as: “Did you find Jacob?” and “Miss, what’s your opinion about amputees?” (Kids are just weird, ok?)

A perfect orbit

Anyway, once I was home and the dust of my thoughts settled, I channeled them into a new wormhole. I researched what would happen if the earth’s orbit skewed, if its tilt altered, and also looked into the calculations being done to check the feasibility of moving the earth further from the sun

All interesting and fairly unlikely, but what intrigued me was what, I suspect, intrigues a lot of us readers and writers. How a tiny change can make a big difference, how a slight tick of motion can catalyse vast movements.

Being Moved

My most recent (and utterly wonderful) read was Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love, in which a character mentions being “moved” by a book. “It moved me in a way one hopes to be moved each time one begins a book. What I mean is, in some way I’d find impossible to describe, it changed me.” 

I thought, couldn’t they have come up with a better verb for such a significant impact? “Move” is stretched wearily over many meanings. But as I reflected on our use of move, I warmed to the term. Sometimes having multiple uses is appropriate. It allows a word extra levels.

We talk about moving up or moving out. We move house and move away, dream of moving mountains and possibly moving the earth’s orbit. There are chess moves and symphonic movements and moves to proceed or to adjourn. Aristotle even came up with a theory referring to God as the Unmoved Mover.

A book (or other work of art) is an Unmoved Mover. It didn’t spring up out of nowhere, but by the time we hold it in our hands, it is standing on its own, detached from its maker. Its power is only what we can take from it, yet it gives so much.

Roots and Tongues

The oldest known version of the word move comes from the proto-Indo-European root meaning “to push away.” There are undoubtedly books that knock us slightly out of orbit. Our temperature heats up, and we proceed with a certain rawness. It’s often, as Krauss writes, impossible to point out a concrete change in our lives. Yet who can say what we notice, how we react, that comes down to our sensitivity being pricked by a book?

The challenge of capturing motion

While thinking about our use of this word in English, I consulted the gloriously warm and talented poet Elizabeth M Castillo. She is fluent in several languages, and let me know about the word “ému” in French, which is deeper and longer-lasting than “moved.” I suppose it’s a bit like our word emote, but in English that sounds sort of… clinical.

“Affect” or “inspire” are a bit vague, whereas I’ve come to like the physical, visceral implications of “move.” A story can be touching, but to say a book “touches” me feels uneasy.

In Spanish, Castillo says, there’s “conmovido,” which is different from their word for physical movement. It “implies something or someone is doing it to you… bringing you along into a feeling.” A bit like an Unmoved Mover, again.

Stories on the Move

I feel as if the best reads can be Unmoved Mover books that give you a shove, or companion books that move along with you, or paper boat books which do the moving for you. Elizabeth M Castillo’s poetry book Cajoncito is one of the latter. Reading her poems, I feel relieved, as if someone’s unlocked sentiments I hadn’t managed to untangle yet, and set them afloat. It’s on sale through Amazon, and honestly the first poem alone is worth the price. 

It’s not just books, of course. Would I have made it through my teen years without accompaniment from Tori Amos and the Les Miserables soundtrack? Have you ever had the lights go up from a live stage production and felt your life as you knew it is over; you’ve been elevated to a different plane and your trajectory has inevitably, if not definably, swerved? In the end, have you come up for a better word to describe the general experience than… “moving?”

Book Review: The Shadows We Cast by Sarah Tinsley

Blazing a trail for literary women to get angry

New year, new literature: after an array of great reads in 2021, I kicked off 2022 with Sarah Tinsley’s debut novel The Shadows We Cast, available from SLR Publishing. This book made me realise how many frontiers are still available for literature to explore. Unflinching but nuanced, this dual narrative of a sexual assault feels powerful enough to start changing the world.

Sarah puts the content warning right in the blurb on the back of the brilliantly designed book jacket. Here’s what it says:

What if you couldn’t recognise the violence in others? Or in yourself?
Nina refuses to accept the role of passive victim after being sexually assaulted. She becomes obsessed with an online vendetta that risks her job, her friendships, and her sanity.
Eric thinks, if anything, he’s too nice. But when he takes advantage of a stranger he is forced to confront the kind of man he really is.
The Shadows We Cast is a dark novel about consent and control that unsettles ideas about victims and villains.

A fast-paced read with deeply drawn characters

Sarah is a friend of mine and has helped me a great deal with my own writing. (She can help with yours, too–check out her wonderful workshops here.) I was excited when she announced her book deal and what The Shadows We Cast is about, knowing she would give it deep, honest treatment. But I was a little scared too. Because of previous experiences, I find it hard to read about sexual assault. Nightmares come more readily, and I feel more exposed while paradoxically the world and my current life seem more distant from me.

Actually, it’s like this line from page 9 of Sarah’s novel. After being attacked the protagonist, Nina, experiences “dreams that made her feel blunt and smudged. She feels like an echo.”

This book doesn’t build up to the rape. As Sarah herself noted during her book launch, too often rape is used as a plot twist, or maybe a dramatic reveal in someone’s backstory. The Shadows We Cast has twists and wields dramatic irony deftly, but it’s very honest about sexual assault. That bit’s already happened. The whole book deals with the gritty aftermath—not just the aftermath for Nina the victim, but also for Eric, her assailant.

And here’s what I found really scary. While taking Nina through the utterly altered landscape of her life following this trauma, Sarah allowed her to get really angry, and to act on that anger.

Sarah invited us to bring cocktails for the virtual book launch, because as she rightly pointed out, honesty even about dark subjects deserves celebration.

How often, in literature, mythology, or even in real life do we allow women to do angry things? From Clytemestra to The Taming of the Shrew to Mrs. Rochester in her attic, no matter what befalls them women are meant to do no harm. The character arc of an angry woman will be that she learns to forgive; she’ll be subdued by love or she’ll face drastic punishment as the villain. Yet in this novel, Nina’s anger is quite powerful and drives her to be truly destructive.

It’s a bit worrying that reading about Nina’s rage disturbed me more than the unflinching catalogue of the injuries she sustained during the attack, or the blurred lines (see what I did there?) in Eric’s mind as he considers what he’s done. This aversion to anger must be a societal effect on me rather than just a personal issue, and now I wonder: have I been depriving my own characters, particularly the female ones, of the right to rage? Is our world ready to acknowledge this now?

I did some research after reading through The Shadows We Cast. It’s a real page-turner, and the ending was quite satisfying. I found an interview about angry women in Greek mythology, the differences between the domestic and political spheres. Thinking about Shakespeare’s heroines, I read this article about the newfound popularity of Measure for Measure, and to top it all off here’s a reading list featuring angry women, because after all this time, why not?

Of course, the reading list was produced before Sarah launched The Shadows We Cast. I definitely recommend checking that one out first, and you can purchase it here. Plus, you won’t want to miss reading more about Sarah and her other work on her site. Please let me know what you think, and whether you have tips on allowing characters to follow their rage. I might need a few of those!

2021 Reading Round-Up

This wasn’t my most prodigious reading year, but I’m incredibly grateful for the books I did get to read. There were some long-anticipated hits, and some delightful surprises. In my top ten alone, there’s quite a range from comics to inspiration to memoir with of course plenty of forays into fiction.

As always, I’m including a favourite quote from each book. That’s the best bit! Previous years’ top ten lists are here, here, here, and here.

Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

This is a quick read, meandering through episodes of Levy’s writing life. From the riveting opening sentence through travels in Majorca and flashbacks to Levy’s childhood in apartheid South Africa, I was engrossed in her reflections. As she crosses geographical borders, she also investigates the borders between secrecy and sharing. How deeply can women writers afford to feel?

I read The Midnight Library while visiting London after Christmas

“Smiling was a way of keeping people out of your head even though you’d opened your head when you parted your lips.”

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

An exploration of the multiverse that can result from a single life, Haig’s popular novel is like having someone read you a choose-your-own adventure book. The protagonist gets to pick different volumes off the shelves and read herself into alternate lives. It culminates with satisfying vibes of “Merry Christmas, you beautiful old broken down Building and Loan!”

“She had shrunk for him, but he still hadn’t found the space he needed.”

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

Another volume of her irreverent, candid, hand-illustrated memoir. My whole family loves Brosh’s work. I laughed hysterically reading about how she raided her neighbour’s house as a child, and then later in the book I cried at her struggles. She champions her uniqueness while also being incredibly relatable.

“Because that’s intimacy, Buckaroos. Somebody who understands exactly how weird you are, and you understand how weird they are, and you’re sort of in a mutually beneficial hostage situation.”

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

One sister stays in Bangladesh and tries to earn her living in a garment factory and then as a household servant, while the other comes to London as a Muslim bride, speaking no English. Multifaceted characters, perfect descriptions, a plot spanning two continents and volatile periods in recent history.

Finished Brick Lane while headed north to the Lakes District in the summer.

“Outside, mist bearded the lampposts and a gang of pigeons turned weary circles on the grass like prisoners in an exercise yard.”

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

This is a pivotal read for shaking up your routine, challenging yourself, and making the most of life. It helps you believe in the positives—not just in yourself, but in others. I loved the “Giving an A” chapter, promising students an A in a college course provided they write a detailed letter at the start on what they’ll do to earn it, and then follow through.

“It is only when we make mistakes in performance that we can really begin to notice what needs attention. In fact, I actively train my [music] students that when they make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’ I recommend that everyone do this.”

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

An award-winning debut novel tackling race and class, and having to grow up. I loved the depictions of friendships, and child-rearing. The main characters are a baby-sitter who loves her charge so much it brought tears to my eyes, and a mum who is still not comfortable enough in her own skin to genuinely care for a pre-schooler who may have the same insecurities.

“‘You get real fired up about what happened that night in Market Depot. But I don’t need you to be mad that it happened. I need you to be mad that it just, like… happens.’”

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

This is also a dual narrative about race and class, but it’s set in the American South before the Civil War and Emancipation. The enslaved characters try to keep their culture alive and their family bonds unbroken. I read it fearing for their safety, but also admiring the spirit of the main character, Handful.

“You come from your mauma, you sleep in the bed with her till you’re near twenty years grown, and you still don’t know what haunches in the dark corners of her.”

Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

A mystery, almost a thriller, as well as a fictional journey of self-discovery. The narrative voice is so compelling, you feel for her and want to protect her even as she self-sabotages her quest for companionship by being harsh with those around her. It’s uplifting to read about Elinor coming to terms with not being completely fine.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer—a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing so horrifying you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

Springtime back garden fun with these floofs, reading Brown Baby.

Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla

Reading this memoir is like spending a day with your best friend. I really wanted to turn up on Shukla’s doorstep and ask to go walking together or something. This is a memoir about the sacrifices and joys of parenting, about raising a small person of colour in an unwelcoming world, about grief and making connections with the family you grew up with. He puts everything in it really, and writes with such warmth and humour.

“If you sleep when the baby sleeps, you have effectively given up. You live by their routine. You are pandering to their tyranny. You’re never sleeping longer than an hour anymore. And you’re wearing dirty pants.”

The Dig Street Festival by Chris Walsh

This hilarious and lovely novel comes from independent publisher Louise Walters Books, and I will be grateful to Twitter forever because without it I wouldn’t have heard about Walsh’s book. Very British and quirky, it takes an endearing, well-meaning protagonist with a Dostoevsky-ish inner monologue through Kafkaesque plot twists with a Dickensian cast of characters. Honestly, it’s just mad fun; please give it some love.

The trouble was, our minds were hard-wired to find patterns in any thing, and to lock into them like meaning-seeking missiles. Not only would we hungrily identify patterns, we would immediately adopt them, fatten them up, farm them, breed and multiply them.”

If you’ve already discovered any of these stories, let’s talk! If you haven’t read them before but decide to give one or two a try, I hope you just love them.