Maria In The Moon

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Lately I seem to be reading the delicious kind of books I can’t resist reviewing here. This morning I finished reading Maria In The Moon by Louise Beech & the review has pretty much written itself.

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Catherine-Maria Hope is a woman with many faces. A face reflected in a cracked mirror creating a myriad versions: Catherine, Katrina, Pure Mary, Catherine-Maria: a woman on the edge, in a ripped red dress, circling her past (& the locked up memory of her ninth year) like an inebriated woman on a dodgy night out. Catherine has been on a few of those. Her memory is pretty good for such occasions & she has the art of self-sabotage honed to within an inch of its life. It is only the year she was nine she can’t remember.

From the beginning, this new book from the immaculate Louise Beech (How To Be Brave, The Mountain In My Shoe) has a far darker edge. The air of expectancy is freighted with an undercurrent of something unpleasant & deeply disturbing. Catherine’s voice is fierce & weighted with words she can only half recall. (‘It’s not love unless it hurts…’)

While her house is being renovated following the devastating floods in Hull of 2007, Catherine, a veteran of Crisis Call volunteering, starts work on a phone line dedicated to supporting flood victims. The lives of the other volunteers & the callers soon become entwined with hers. And her relationship with her mother, their alienation from one another, lies at the heart of the story. A heavy secret, which neither of them remembers, has insinuated itself over the years until there seems to be no hope of reconciliation. What the author does so imaginatively, so perceptively, is examine this relationship & find a way for Catherine & her mother to ‘choose the best words.’ (Even in the debris of their mutual antipathy there is humour. Catherine’s mother has a way of dealing with her daughter’s foul language which is genuinely funny.)

Flawed & feisty, Catherine Hope makes it impossible not to care. Her emotions are cloaked & at the same time, movingly raw. We are witnesses to her first person narrative & it is our privilege. As the hints nudge at her memory, they alert us too and yet when it comes, the shock of the final twist is a knock-out blow which will leave you reeling.

As someone who worked for years as a Samaritan volunteer, I must commend Louise Beech on her faithful portrayal of this kind of counselling. It’s spot on. Maria In The Moon is spot on in so many ways. It’s a psychological thriller and a sideways love-story. It is impossible not to love Catherine-Maria Hope. In the moon or feet on the ground, being sick in a sink or dancing in a red dress in the rain, she will catch you unawares. After you turn the last page you will still sense her, & the echo of yet another woman’s story: a story of loss & courage & hope.

My blog, my rules. A million stars to enhance the moon.

My sincere thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for the ARC.

Maria In The Moon will be published on 30 September. It is available for pre-order here.

 

The spaces in between

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

In that order, oh yes, it’s an Island Life morning & no mistake. The earlier mist has lifted a bit although it remains Avalonian & suitably mysterious. I can hear a bird too, see the swifts feeding on the wing. And there is always the process…

I suspect I may have used my title before: the spaces in between are familiar to writers. With one book finished (as in – being scrutinised by copy editors, proofreaders et al ) & the scent of launch day not as far away as I imagine, there is a temptation to tread water. Think about guest posts & the answers to questions I haven’t yet been asked. Faff a bit in pictorial procrastination. (Good eh?) I’m a collector of images & always on the look out for unusual ones. I don’t need much of an excuse to play…

“I’m restless. Things are calling me away. My hair is being pulled by the stars again.”

Thus spake the glorious Anaïs Nin.

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For stars, read words & you have it. (I’m guessing that’s what she meant.) I am being pulled by my words. But which story do I choose? For I do have choices: a completed (four drafts in) of one & the exciting draft zero of another. Perhaps I ought to toss a coin. Either way, the space must be filled. I’m restless & not writing isn’t an option.

Not enough stars

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

It isn’t my habit to regularly post book reviews. I’m a writer not a book blogger. Every now & then a special book comes my way & it becomes a pleasure to share my thoughts about it here.

Not Thomas, by Sara Gethin is such a book.

Unquestionably, unless you are made of stone, this book will make you cry. It will snag the edge of your heart, lodge in your throat & reduce you to tears. It’s a dark story with a paradoxically light centre which is one of its myriad graces. The story of the little boy who is ‘Not Thomas’ – if only the lady would listen – is by turn heart-rending & ultimately hopeful.

Tomos’ plight is shocking & in our so-called civilized society, no child should have to deal with the things this brave little five-year-old endures. As the story opens, Tomos is hiding, because that’s what his young, damaged, vulnerable mother has told him to do. The lady is coming & he knows not to open the door. As it unfolds, other, more sinister people come & still, Tomos tries not to open the door.

He is a neglected child (surely the worst kind of abuse since it is so easily remedied) & his predicament is shameful. And yet, in spite of her apparent deafness to her child’s plight, we can’t help but sympathise with Tomas’ mother, the way we give thanks for Miss – who does listen.

The beauty of this book lies in the gorgeous, deceptively simple prose. Told from the viewpoint of Tomos, Sara Gethin perfectly describes him – describes him telling the reader who he is, how he feels, what he fears. She does so in language which is both childlike & never childish. It possesses a naive maturity which draws you in. I read it in one sitting, unable to set it aside, mesmerised by the poignancy & tragedy of Tomos’ young life, the lyrical prose & the hope which held me rapt – like my now & then actual caught breath – to the end.

The author exposes the frailties of a social services system which is sometimes less than fit for purpose without ever apportioning blame. She is without rancour, pragmatic & honest in her fictional assessment & thus she reveals the limitless humanity of the book. Hers & ours, which is the reason why, when we read this book, we weep.

Not Thomas is a book which must surely win prizes.

It is available directly from the publisher, Honno or Amazon & selected bookshops.

not thomas

You can read more about Sara & her writing here.

Losing the plot

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Recently, I checked out a self-published book only to be put off by basic grammatical errors in the first paragraph. Now I’m not saying traditionally published books escape unsullied by error. Of course they don’t – by & large though it’s unwitting, more proofreading slippage than lazy editorial faux pas. The latter grates & guarantees I won’t buy the book.

Moving onwards & a little bit sideways, I’m prompted to another of my ‘we all need an objective editor’ rants. Sloppy, basic editing apart – for which there is little excuse, frankly – I’m thinking more about content & the shape of the story on the page.

The other day I outlined the plot of what I hope will be my third book to my mentor: aka Yoda (only far prettier.) She listened attentively, asked for the odd bit of clarification & I thought to myself, ‘Hello! This is going well!’  She then proceeded to turn my plot on its head & ruin my reveal! (I know – some people?) It was however another one of those magical moments of instant recognition & I ticked the proverbial box.

This is what great editors do – they read between our lines & find the version of the story we’re meant to be writing. It isn’t the wrong story. Not unlike Eric, in The Morecambe & Wise Show, when he played delicious musical mind games with a bemused Andre Previn – I have the right words, but not necessarily in the right order.

As usual – & any self-aware writer will get this – I’m too close to the story not to miss the occasional crucial signpost. I have to take that reveal & do something smarter with it. And how clever the alternative! How simple.

My words birds like a nice tune & do send me some lovely ones. They approve the new plot. It’s still made of the same notes – I’ve just played with the order a bit. It’s all about perception. And tempo. About setting things on fire a bit.

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As for any errors – well yes – at this stage (draft zero) loads of them. But once I get to my first, proper one & begin sorting the sonatas from the scherzos so to speak, I can pretty much guarantee I’ll at least have my singular & my plural sorted.

The two-trick pony & the ghosts in her machine

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Although I like authors who reinvent themselves, I’m partial to familiarity too. Publishers, agents & editors tend to like ‘more of the same’ & in my experience, readers lap it up. This is not to say a writer shouldn’t stretch herself. ‘RiverBook’ – the story I thought was going to be a follow-up to Ghostbird – has no ghost. It has a much older main protagonist too. I first abandoned it to write Snow Sisters – which came out of left field insisting ghost stories (& sister stories) are what I write.

With this book accepted for publication, the one-hit wonder is on the road to becoming a two-trick pony. And what larks that evokes! I’m a book-writer now & no mistake. I need new shoes at the very least!

While Snow Sisters waits patiently in the copy-edit queue, I have to write something. It made sense to reacquaint myself with ‘River’ which I did, only to be ambushed yet again by another ghost. Once more, poor ‘River’ has been usurped (there’s no other word for it) by a sneaky interloper dragging a spook behind her…

If the cap fits we are told, wear it. And so I shall. Once again my cap is made from mist & secrets & stretches of endless Welsh sky. It’s decorated with raven feathers & when I set it aside, I swear it whispers fragments of words which can only be the voice of a ghost…

Currently, it’s a muddle; the usual random scribbles but as I place them on the page, something more solid begins to emerge.

Naturally, there is a level of apprehension attached to writing ‘more of the same’ but I comfort myself with the thought that it’s good enough for some of my literary sheroes. And I have no particular desire to take a different direction. I have no need to reinvent myself – at this stage I’m barely invented! I know my place if you like & it suits. In the end, it will be down to my reader. If Snow Sisters suits then why not write another ghost story? Why not set another book in my beloved Welsh hinterland among the bones of dragons, conjuring spells and listening for the voice of a ghost?

And who knows, perhaps ‘RiverBook’ will one day make it out of the shallows. She has four drafts to her name & the tenacity of a terrier.

NPG Ax142596; Virginia Woolf (nÈe Stephen) by Lady Ottoline Morrell

How are we to account for the strange human craving for the pleasure of feeling afraid which is so much involved in our love of ghost stories?
~ Virginia Woolf

“Can’t wait for it to end…” In Praise of the One-Star Review.

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process.

It had to happen. Even Joanne Harris & Maggie O’Farrell have been recipients of the death-star review. A quick search also throws up the likes of Louise Beech & Amanda Jennings. (I know, how very dare they???) And even the blessed Mrs Woolf doesn’t escape. Twenty-one 1* reviews for Mrs Dalloway!

You kinda know it’s coming. When it does mind, when it’s laced with stupid, it takes you aback.

“One dimensional characters, poorly written. Could have been so much better. I couldn’t wait for it to end.”

Which does of course beg the question, ‘Didn’t you realise you were allowed to stop reading?’ In the spirit of being a good loser, I posted the review on FB. The resulting comments go to show what a lovely gang I hang out with.

“Join the Jane Austen club.”
“Pish & Nonsense.”
“You’ve got to admire the reviewer’s Stoicism. It can’t have been easy… Almost like reading is an activity that happens *to* someone.”
“All hail the one star review. You’ve arrived.”
“Good grief!”
“You aren’t an author until you get a one star review.”
“If I hadn’t read Ghostbird already I would buy it on the “strength” of that review!”

And my particular favourite: “Couldn’t wait for it to end” ???? Don’t read it then you numpty!”

These are just a selection. You get the picture. By close of day, I’d ended up with another lovely review, several promises of reviews, two sales & some of the funniest exchanges I’ve had on FB for weeks. So cheers, whoever you are, poor woman nailed to your chair until the bitter end, you’ve done me a massive favour. I’m in good company; I’m on another list with some of my literary sheroes!

As my daughter said just now, ‘Bloody awful movie last night, Mum, couldn’t wait for it to be over.’

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Fear & Loathing via Abergavenny

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

I could just as easily call this post, ‘Unaccustomed as I am to Public Speaking’ only it’s been done before &, unexpectedly, I find it’s no longer true.

Yesterday’s event, hosted by the National Women’s Register: NWR, was sandwiched between two trying journeys. Deciding to eschew the motorway in favour of the prettier route, I got hideously lost in Abergavenny. No disrespect, pretty town, but honestly – road signs? Getting lost in Abergavenny was only the beginning. Further on, having mislaid a small but crucial bit of the A48 (which I suspect doesn’t in fact exist), having missed A Vital Exit & finding myself on the motorway heading for London (don’t ask) I then drove for twelve miles trying not to cry. My inner stroppy bitch bullied me into getting a grip & finally I made it to the venue, the très posh Coldra Court Hotel, at reception, doing a passable impression of a red-faced, deranged bag lady.

(The going home bit was via the motorway & all can say about that is, pretty is as pretty does…)

The event was billed as A Celebration of Women’s Writing & my brief was to talk about my writing, road to publication & the story behind the story of Ghostbird. It was almost certainly The Horrid Journey that brought out the Fear again. A smaller than expected audience meant close scrutiny & nowhere to hide. Bring on the butterflies…

NWR

And yet…

It was fine. I was fine. I enjoyed myself & to my surprise found the Q & A session, which I had dreaded, easy. These things really are just conversations. Some delightful & gratifying feedback was the icing on the cake. When your reader gets you, it makes everything about the writing worth it.

This public speaking lark isn’t so scary after all. Not as scary as the route through Abergavenny at any rate…

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Although I missed the talks by Judith Barrow & Bethan Darwin (sister Honno authors) I did get to hear the redoubtable & feisty Lleucu Seincyn, CEO from Literature Wales. Her passion & determination to make girls visible in literature made me want to punch the air.

And Penny Thomas from Firefly Press & Seren Books gave a fascinating talk on her experiences as a publisher. Firefly is the brainchild of Penny & editor, Janet Thomas. If you are looking for classy books for 8-11 year-olds, look no further!

Special thanks to Natalie Punter, the organiser of the event for her efficiency & kindness. To everyone who attended, contributed & took part, thanks to you too. Without an audience, without readers & book-buyers, writers, literally, are lost.

WRITING TAKE ME FAR

Notions of story, hiraeth & heart’s home

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

My definition of my nationality, if anyone asks, is ‘Irish blood, Welsh heart.’ Like most British people I’m a hybrid, made from two kinds of Celt & a bit of Warwickshire. My mother was from Northern Ireland, a nurse, singer & classically trained pianist; my father was half-Southern Irish with a streak of English & an ability to play the blues piano by ear. I grew up with love, boundaries, music & stories. Many of the latter were read to me by my mum, some of them I imagined. (I made up stories for my sister & to this day, she still hasn’t forgiven me for failing to finish the saga of The Veiled Lady.)

Lots of the stories my daddy told me were from mythology. I loved them all & still do. Legends & folklore inform more contemporary fiction than we realise. I borrowed Blodeuwedd’s story from the Mabinogion for Ghostbird. I’m conjuring my version of the selkie legend for my third book & for my fourth, writing one based on my favourite folktale, The Red Shoes.

Snow Sisters, my second novel, due out in September, is the only one of my books without an obvious myth running through it. What it does have is a strong link to a different kind of Welsh mythos. (This isn’t even the right word; it’s the best I can come up with.) I’ve lived in Wales long enough to understand the notion of hiraeth: the ineffable longing for home, almost impossible to translate or put into words. It’s a feeling more than a descriptor, an occasional sense of grief; a disconnect surrounding your heart like a whispered poem evoking the emotion of separation, or perhaps the absence of presence. At its most emotive & fundamental, hiraeth is a longing for the unattainable, possibly existing only in one’s imagination.

In Snow Sisters, in lieu of a myth, I invoke my interpretation of hiraeth as experienced by Verity & Meredith Price, two young girls whose sense of themselves is irrevocably connected to their physical home in Wales.

Curled into her sister’s warmth, Meredith dreamed of the blue garden, the moths and the world between the veil, and that she was finally taken by the Fae. In her place they left a well-behaved changeling child for her mother to take to London.
When she woke, she pinched her arm and knew her wish hadn’t worked.

The Welsh own hiraeth as part of their identity – like a blood tie or an inherited name, like dragons, Tom Jones’ green grass of home or a Dylan Thomas poem. And laced with pathos though it is, hiraeth can be droll & joyful too.

If there’s a word for it,’ wrote the poet, Jo Bell, ‘it sounds like laughter.’

I like that. The idea that come what may & however far from heart’s home we travel; we sense a link like a note of laughter, even if we have a tear in our eye & a lump in our throat.

I’ll leave the last words to Dylan Thomas…

Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea
.

~ Fern Hill

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Directions & snippets

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

In the aftermath of Epic Editing, a few days in a state of limbo seemed like a plan. With nothing urgent to crack on with I allowed myself to land, consider the accumulated muddle in my flat, admire the dust; look for a new set of directions.

I have a date with the Llandeilo Literary Festival next weekend & have been gathering the threads for my role as moderator on one of the panels. Otherwise – writing wise – apart from on-going note taking for books 3 & 4, I was at a bit of a loose end. Yesterday I decided to take myself off to a beach – by myself – to potter & ponder, trail along the sand, clamber over rocks like an elderly Brontë* on a day out to the seaside. (I don’t like jeans, preferring frocks; it’s amazing what you can get done in a skirt & sneakers…)

I drove north, to the seaside town of Aberaeron & the beach on the southern side of the harbour.

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It’s less populated than the one to the north & like the beach in Snow Sisters, hardly anyone goes there.

Snapping the book shut and shoving it in her pocket, she was about to go down to the stile and onto the beach when she spotted a figure, close to the cliff near the stone dragon. No one came to this end of the beach. It was a dead end and didn’t lead anywhere.
   The tide surged across the sand, closing in; leaving only a narrow strip of shingle to walk on. Ducking low, Verity scrambled down to the stile, peeked over the ledge and saw him. Tall and dark-haired, wearing a jacket with the collar turned up, his hands thrust into deep pockets.
   A tall man in a dark coat…

This location is based on another beach I know well, also situated at the southern end of a long strand made of sand & pebbles intersected by a harbour. To the west, across the bay, lies Ireland & my ancestors.

A boat appeared on the horizon, a flash of a distant sail.
   Meredith shaded her eyes. ‘Where does the sea end?’  
   ‘Ireland.’
   ‘Imagine if you were in a boat and you went on forever, not getting anywhere. Just rowed and rowed in your little boat.’
   Verity shivered. ‘Or swam.’

Quite. Much as I love to swim, I can’t imagine swimming to Ireland…

As an Air sign, the direction I most identify with is east. It’s the place of beginnings, where ideas are conjured & possibilities emerge. That’ll be the copy-edits proper then, the proofing & so forth. And a new cover. A new book!

I don’t do even numbers, so here’s a third snippet.

It’s the opening line…

My name is Angharad and I am not mad.

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*No comparison to any Brontë sister is implied.

Editing & learning my craft

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Two weeks, dear reader, & not so much as a single scribbled paragraph.

Editing! What larks! What long days spent in PJs looking like the hedge everyone gets dragged through…

The first time I saw the [copyedits for Ghostbird I genuinely gulped. What has someone done to my nice tidy text? Copyedits look as if a spider has slit several of its wrists & bled all over your story. There is so much red, it makes your brain hurt. And the comments! Listed like mini ‘To Do’ lists down the side of the page, each with its own identifying code. [In posh brackets.] Once you get the hang of how the formatting works, technically, it’s pretty simple. What is less straightforward is the content.

For health reasons, my beloved editor, Janet, has had to step back. After a major structural edit with her, I’m now in the superbly capable hands of Caroline, aka the Boss! Midway through the process, a new eye inevitably means a fresh perspective. With  this second edit, I’m being taken on – yes, let’s call it by its name – a rather fascinating journey. A full-on, nitty-gritty attention to detail one.

With Ghostbird I relied almost entirely on Janet, an anonymous copy editor & proofreader; a cover designer & so forth, to get everything right. (They did – brilliantly so.) This time, I’ve taken more responsibility. I know what to look for now, how vital cross-referencing & checking ad nauseum is. I’m learning my craft & I’m proud of that. And I did write the story! But in terms of a finished, professional product, that will once again be down to the team at Honno.

I’m at the hard copy read it through again, “Bloody hell, look at all the STUFF that still needs fixing!” stage now.

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I absolutely love it. I love being published by such professional, caring, involved people whose single aim is to make my book the best it can be.

Best crack on…