The Genre Conundrum Part 3: Age and other issues in Romantic Fiction #amwriting

Read Me
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When I was looking for a literary agent and publisher for my first novel, Change of Life, nearly ten years ago, one of the rejection reasons I was given was the age of my main characters. I was told nobody wanted to read a romance where the prospective couple were in their late forties and especially where they had to deal with awkward teenage children and cope with one of them falling seriously ill. It seemed realism was out and hearts and flowers happy-ever-after romanticism was in.

Things have moved on a bit since then. There are romantic novels, where difficult issues are included in the story. However, romance does still seem to be dominated by the ‘Cafe in the Seaside Village’ type stories with their matchstick female figures on their pastel-coloured covers. But even although the covers are clichéd, and the stories follow a formula, they can be very enjoyable in a hearts-and- flowers, young love, happy-ever-after sort of way.

But it seems to me that romantic fiction with older lead characters is still in the minority – even although the biggest part of the population in the UK is over fifty. I don’t believe it’s because people don’t want to read such novels and I think maybe the big publishers are missing a trick here.

I should also say before going any further that what follows is merely my impression and  my opinion. It isn’t based on any scientific research.

And my final disclosure is one of vested interest – I am 61 and three-quarters years-old.

Oh and PS – I should also say that I’m in no way anti romantic fiction with   characters. I’ve recently read and thoroughly enjoyed three excellent  romances with protagonists in their twenties and thirties. These were June Kearns two historical romances: The Englishwoman’s Guide to the Cowboy and The 20s Girl, the Ghost and All That Jazz. And my most recent read is Kate Field’s The Magic of Ramblings which truly is magic – and poignant and beautiful.

But I also enjoy reading about older characters falling in love. I like romances where the protagonists are in their forties, fifties, sixties and beyond. And I like a bit of realism. I like to see the prospective couple facing up to the issues, complications and challenges that come with age. I like it when there are several generations of a family involved in the story.  And I like to see there’s hope and fun and love to be had by us all – regardless of age.

Authors in other genres – crime for example – have created hugely successful older lead characters. There’s Detective Rebus in Ian Rankin’s Novels and there’s the wonderful Vera in the series by Ann Cleeves – to name just two.

And there are some fabulous romance writers who are  nailing it in this regard. Books by Maggie Christensen, Christine Webber, Gilli Allan and Hilary Boyd spring to mind. Do check them out if you like more mature, romance-plus fiction. You’ll be in for a highly enjoyable read with any of their books.

Which brings me to the age of the readers of books – I don’t as an author aim for a particular age group. I have young and old readers. Indeed my children’s novel The Silver Locket seems to have been read by as many, if not more, adults as children.

I don’t get the impression that Crime or Sci-Fi or Fantasy are particularly appealing to one narrow age group – Harry Potter is not just read by children, and I’m guessing the Outlander books appeal across the adult age range to those who like the genre.

Why should romance be any different? Although I do get that someone in their twenties might not want to read about people the age of their parents/grandparents falling in love and you know… But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and it doesn’t mean that older readers shouldn’t be able to read romances centred around people their age.

So I suppose what I’m saying is let’s have romantic fiction that’s a bit more relaxed about age, a bit more inclusive.

As a writer I enjoy writing about characters nearer my own age, facing up to life-changing challenges and dealing with all sorts of issues – as well as finding themselves falling in love. Other writers prefer writing about younger characters regardless of their own age.

As a reader I enjoy all sorts of romances and other genres too – and the characters ages are incidental – what matters to me is that it’s a good story, well told, and with a satisfying resolution.

And in conclusion – I’m no further forward with nailing this genre thing – but it’s been fun thinking and writing about it. I know my books aren’t chick-lit or ‘pure’ romance. But I don’t think ‘love-at-the-last-chance-cafe-for-the-chronologically-challenged-with-baggage’ classification is going to work.

Help!

As always please do leave your thoughts and comments below.

Good Fathers in Literature

As a follow up to last week’s post about my own father, I’m posting again today, the day after Father’s Day in the UK, about dads.

I was inspired to do this one after reading a post by fellow blogger, Christina Philippou, on good examples of fatherhood in literature. So thanks, Christina. You can read her post here

When I began thinking about who I’d put on my list, I was surprised how difficult it was to come up with a few. I decided not to ask for Mr Google for suggestions and to just trawl my memory – so it it would indeed be my list.

Lots of what I’ve read has had absent fathers, bad fathers or no mention of fathers. I could come up with a few good fathers from my childhood and young adult reading and two from my most recent reading, but for all the years of reading in between I was struggling to come up with any. There’s perhaps a PhD thesis in why they seem scarce.

Or perhaps this says more about what I choose to read than about whether these male characters exist or not. I’d be interested to know what readers think about that.

Anyway, without further ado here are my five best dads in literature:

Malory Towers

  • From childhood and Enid Blyton’s first book in the Malory Towers series, it would be Mr Rivers, the father of main character, Darrell Rivers. She’s having a hard time settling into her new boarding school until her surgeon dad saves the life of her fellow pupil and future best friend, Sally who needs her appendix out. Not the easiest example for dad’s to follow but hey surely, if you’re kid is having trouble making friends or being picked on at school, it would surely be worth it to get yourself off to medical school.

Little Women

  • From later childhood reading, I would nominate Mr March. He is the much loved father of the four March girls in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. He’s absent for most of the book, but in a good way as he’s off being an army chaplain during the American Civil war. His absence is a significant presence (if you see what I mean) and is central to the story.

To Kill A Mockingbird

  • From my young adult reading days, best father has to be Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mocking Bird. His integrity, honesty and respect for his fellow humans makes him just the best role model.

And coming up to date, my final two are from my current weakness for contemporary crime fiction.

Keep the Midnight Out

  • Firstly, there’s Detective Superintendent William Lorimer who is the lead cop in Alex Gray’s novels. He’s not actually a father but in Keep the Midnight Out his longing to be a father is poignantly told as he and his wife come to terms with infertility.

Thin Air

  • And finally, it’s another detective, this time Jimmy Perez from the Ann Cleeves, Shetland set crime novels. He’s a flawed but loving step-dad, struggling to do the best for his step-daughter.

So, who’d be on your list?

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

‘Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded’ Gautama Buddha

Thoughts are just that: thoughts. They’re not facts or artefacts. They’re not necessarily true or correct. But, boy, are they powerful!

I believe storytelling and listening to stories is part of what makes us human and it’s something people have always done. We do it to make sense of our world and how we experience it.

As a writer, stories are my thing. I love the whole process of crafting a story from initial thought to finished novel.

As a reader, I love to be told a story, to be transported, taken out of myself by someone else’s thoughts and words.

But there’s an aspect of storytelling that’s not so positive and not so enjoyable. And that can be the uncrafted, unedited stories we tell ourselves.

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The Story Goblin

Many of us succumb to the goading and taunting of our own thoughts. I know I do. The story goblin in our heads knows all our baggage, all our triggers, all our awful ‘what if’ scenarios and it’s all too ready to jump right in there and take control. Next stop: horrible, out of control anxiety or a drastic drop in self-esteem.

However, if we’re aware of what’s happening, then we can take back a bit of control. Otherwise those powerful stories will sabotage us and may seriously affect our mental health.

While it’s true we can’t control everything that happens, we do have some say in how we react.

So if you make a mistake, or get hurt, or are presented with a stressful or unfamiliar situation, it’s healthier not to go off on one. Don’t follow that goblin down the route to ‘I’m such an idiot,’ or ‘I should have expected it and I deserve it’ or ‘this is going to end unbearably badly’.

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Edit or delete

So what can we do? How can we get a bit of control over the stories we’re telling ourselves? Well we can:

*STOP. RECOGNISE WHAT’S HAPPENING. BREATHE. PUT THAT NEGATIVE STORY AND THE GOBLIN IN LIDDED AND LOCKED BOX. LEAVE IT THERE.*

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THEN

Redraft and reshape

Show yourself some compassion. Forgive yourself. And don’t have catastrophe mode as an automatic, default setting. Be realistic.

We can’t prevent our thoughts. We all have them. We can’t function without them. But we can employ an inner editor. We can decide on what are the useful, truthful and inspiring stories. Yes we can still get stuff wrong, hurt or be hurt, find ourselves in scary situations, BUT we are also the editors of the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. We can control our reactions. We can shape our own stories.

Are you stalked by a version of the story goblin? Or have you learned ways to be the active author of the stories you tell yourself?

 

 

 

 

Why Blog? Just Because

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It started as one thing but became something quite different…

It was back in January 2010, having just published my first novel, that I began writing this blog. The word on online-writer-street was (and still is), that as an author, it was advisable to have a blog in order to raise your authorly profile and to alert potential readers to your masterpieces and where they could buy them.

So after a bit of research I chose WordPress to be the host for my blog. I liked its ease of use, even for an old, not very tech savvy bird like me. I also liked the wide choice of style and appearance that WordPress has to choose from.

To start with I blogged mainly about my writing. I wrote about the process, motivation and road to publication and beyond. At first the number of people viewing my posts was low. But ever so gradually the numbers grew. People started to ‘like’ the posts and comments started to come in. I also visited and began to follow other people’s blogs.

Later I linked my posts to my Twitter account, so that I could alert folks to new posts. And over the years I reviewed and updated the look and type of content on my blog and I also got my own domain of putitinwriting.me

And now? Now Put It In Writing is my online hub. It’s my home on the web. Yes, I have two author websites – one for each of my author identities – but they’re really just shop windows for my work. And yes, I have two author pages on Facebook where I engage with the readers of my books. But it’s on the blog that I write and share the stuff that matters most to my writing soul.

Nowadays after 268 posts, I write about books I’ve read, I write about my experiences, thoughts and reflections and sometimes I even write about my writing. I hope to entertain, give pause for thought and to inform.

But I no longer do it to sell books. I’m not sure it ever had that effect anyway. I blog because I love it. I enjoy writing the posts and I enjoy the comments and interaction that my posts generate.

And I get just as much enjoyment from reading others’ blogs. I follow a lot of other blogs here on WordPress and elsewhere, covering a wide variety of topics and types of writing. By engaging with fellow bloggers’ posts, I in turn, am entertained, made to think and informed. I read my fellow bloggers posts, comment on and share them on Twitter. And they do the same for me. And it’s through blogging, and the often related use of Twitter, that I feel like I’m part of a mutually supportive community of readers and writers.

The bloggers I follow are, by definition, all writers. They include fellow novelists, book bloggers who love reading and reviewing what they’ve read, and others who are commentators on all sorts of interesting topics.

Below I’ve listed just a few of my favourite bloggers –

Some wise and wonderful author bloggers include:

Helen Mackinven at https://helenmackinven.wordpress.com

Anne Stenhouse at https://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/

Shelley Sackier at https://peakperspective.com/

Bryn Donovan at http://www.bryndonovan.com/

Summer Pierre at https://summerpierre.wordpress.com/

Henry Chamberlain at https://comicsgrinder.com/category/henry-chamberlain/

Martin Griffin at http://www.martingriffinbooks.com/

 

Some of the insightful and dedicated book bloggers who I’ve ‘met’ through the wonderful Book Connectors group on Facebook include:

Linda at https://lindasbookbag.com/

Hayley at https://rathertoofondofbooks.com

Anne at http://beingannereading.blogspot.co.uk

Joanne at https://portobellobookblog.com

 

Then there’s nature writer and artist and real life friend, Jan who blogs at https://janhendry.com/

There’s spot-on observational post writer Andrea at https://andreabadgley.com

There’s truck driving, Shakespeare buff and art lover George at http://myshakespearejourney.wordpress.com/

There’s lovely writer and photographer Marsha at http://tchistorygal.wordpress.com/

And finally, there’s the educational and engaging official blog of the Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre at https://cullodenbattlefield.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/270-years-ago/

 

One last thing  before you go, why do you read and or/write a blog? Do you have a sense of an online tribe and if so where does that come from? Do leave your thought in the comments below.

 

 

Themes: Not Just for Literary Fiction

image via shutterstock
                            image via shutterstock

 

A Fictional Hierarchy    

There seems to be a consensus which says that literary fiction is first and foremost about themes and that commercial fiction has character, plot and setting at the forefront. There also seems to be an apparent hierarchy to the above elements of fiction which places themes above the other three. And this gives rise to a belief that literary fiction, by concentrating mainly on theme, is written by more intelligent authors for more intelligent readers.

An Artificial Divide

But I’ve never really got the divide between literary and commercial fiction. It seems artificial and rather snobbish to me. As a reader I’m looking for a good read and I’ve found great books on both the alleged sides. And, as an author of contemporary fiction, I don’t sit down to write a literary or a commercial book. I set out to write a book.

Basic Story Writing Includes Themes

image copyright Suriya KK via shutterstock.com.

When I was a primary school teacher, teaching my pupils how to write stories, I highlighted all four ingredients: character, plot, setting and theme. I didn’t see one of those elements as more important or requiring more intelligence to develop. And as a professional writer, I still don’t.

What became obvious with my pupils was that everyone differed in their preferred element for getting their story started. Some loved to start with a character and that was what led everything else. Others preferred setting and so on. And there were some who were just plain inspired by whatever.

But what they were all aiming for was to write a good story and to impress their teacher.

And in my own writing, the same four elements are equally crucial when I’m creating a story. I play around with them all in my novels. For me, it’s usually a character who comes first and then, as I get to know that character, the setting and plot suggest themselves and the themes just appear.

But like my pupils, my overall aim is to write a good story that will impress my readers.

 

My Themes

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However, although I don’t set out first and foremost to address a particular theme, like I said, themes do appear and they become integral to the whole.

In Change of Life, the characters must deal with the themes of marriage, family life, secrets and mortality as their stories play out. In Displacement it is bereavement, belonging and relationships, as well as the politics of war that drive the plot. And in my children’s novel, The Silver Locket, the story of the three main characters’ time travelling mission deals with friendship, bullying, the loss of a parent, and increasing independence from adults.

And in my work-in-progress, Settlement, which is the sequel to Displacement, the themes are commitment, purpose, love and the politics of peace.

And Finally

There is also, in my adult fiction, an over-riding theme, and that is – there is life after the age of 45. All the main themes of life persist into middle-age and beyond. Life is as messy, interesting, frustrating and wonderful at 60 as it is at 20.

Whether this insight in particular, or my use of theme in general in my writing makes me a literary type author, I’ve no idea and doesn’t particularly concern me. But I hope I do produce a good read.

What themes do you most like to read or write about? And do you differentiate between literary and commercial fiction? Please do leave your comments below.

Maintaining Focus as a Writer

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image via shutterstock

A question that’s been concerning me of late: should I, as a writer, take the wide landscape view when deciding what to work on, or should I zoom in and maintain a tight, close-up focus?

Yes, the above sentence is a metaphor. Hey, I’m a writer. What do you expect?

But seriously, the wide view or the close focus question is something I’ve been thinking about recently as regards my writing.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I’m currently working on my next novel, the sequel to Displacement. However I haven’t added a word to it for about a month. It’s not that I haven’t been at the desk and it’s not the case that I’ve done no writing in that time.

And to be fair to me, during this monthly hiatus, one of the weeks was taken up with having the family, including young grandchildren, to stay over Easter, which was lovely but quite rightly precluded getting anywhere near my desk. And there was also the weekend away at the Scottish Writers annual conference – another lovely and worthwhile time away from the keyboard.

But the rest of the month I was at my desk. I just wasn’t working on the novel. No, I was working on entries for writing competitions, writing blog posts, writing book reviews and doing all the apparently necessary online networking that writers have to do nowadays. I was spread rather thinly, spinning many plates, pick your own metaphor…

I was also procrastinating as far as the novel is concerned. I’ve hit the metaphorical wall (okay, I’ll stop with the metaphors now). The novel has stalled and having lots of other writing, and writing related, tasks to do gave me the perfect excuse to put it to one side.

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However, I’ve now got a grip and regained some focus.

This is partly down to me giving myself a talking to – a talking to that involves reiterating that procrastination is for wimps and requires to be worked through and overcome. And it’s partly down to something the keynote speaker, crime novelist, Caro Ramsay, said in a workshop she gave at the aforementioned Scottish Writers’ Conference.

I realised, just as in any other job, I needed to prioritise. I needed to remind myself why I write – answer I love it – and what it is I most enjoy – I most enjoy being immersed in my characters’ lives. I also needed to remind myself that I’m in the privileged position of having been able to take early retirement from my teaching job in order to have more time to write. But that time waits for no-one and it’s fairly galloping along.

And Caro Ramsay’s words also came back to me and helped me sort out my priorities. She’d asked those of us attending her writing workshop why we went in for competitions, why if we were novel writers did we not just get on and write our novels?

She pointed out that she had no pieces of writing ‘in a drawer’. Everything she writes is for publication and gets published. This wasn’t said in order to boast about her publishing success, but rather to emphasise the point that all her writing has one purpose, i.e. to produce and publish a novel. She was urging focus and commitment. And this is someone who works fulltime as an osteopath and who writes in her ‘spare’ time AND who has published many novels with major publishers, Penguin.

Now there’s nothing wrong with writing competitions per se. I’ve entered many in my time with varying levels of success. Something I find very useful about them is the deadlines they provide and in some cases the feedback that is given. However, they’re mostly short stories and I’ve now come to accept that writing shorts is not my forte. And I must admit I’d recently got sidetracked by the whole competitions thing.

And I accept that social media networking, reading and reviewing the work of others, and writing my blog are all not just a vital way of connecting with readers and other writers, they’re also enjoyable in their own right.

image via shutterstock

BUT novel writing is my thing. It’s my strength, my first love and my passion. And so I must get back to prioritising what I love the most. Like Caro Ramsay, I want all my writing published. So I’m going to focus on what’s got a chance of being worthy of publication and that’s definitely the novels. I also have a sense of loyalty to my readers. I promised them a sequel and a sequel that shall have.

Therefore I’ve put a moratorium on competition entries for the foreseeable, and I’ve made diary commitments to when and to how much time I’ll give to the different aspects of my writing life each week with the novel getting the biggest share. No excuses, no procrastinating. I show up and even if I write drivel, I get on with the damn book, I move it forward.

I know that sometimes my focus will falter, sometimes real life will get in the way of the imaginary one, but that’s fine and I’ll attempt always to pay back any novel writing time lost. I might fall, but I’ll get right back on the horse – sorry – metaphor crept in there!

So here’s to getting Settlement finished and out by the end of the year. And yes doing this post was in the diary for today.

What sidetracks you and how do you stay focussed on what matters most?

Best Blogs Part 1: Comics Grinder

Comics Grinder

One of the best things about blogging is connecting with fellow bloggers. I follow a wide variety blogs and am always entertained, educated and excited by them. Over the next while I plan to post about some of the blogs I consider to be amongst the best.

First up is Comics Grinder the home of fellow WordPress blogger, graphic novel author and illustrator, Henry Chamberlain. You can visit his highly informative and knowledgeable blog here.

George's Run 2

Henry is a prolific poster. And the standard of his posts is consistently high. He reviews graphic novels, comics and comic conferences. He includes every sort of work aimed at all sorts of audiences. He generously highlights the work of other cartoonists and comic authors. But he’s also a talented comics author in his own right and is working on a graphic biography of George Clayton Johnson, the co author of Logan’s Run and the writer of the first ever episode of Star Trek. Part One is called George’s Run #1 (Amazon UK link) is available on Kindle. (Amazon US Link)

Comics: not just for kids but a good place to start

Comics were something I enjoyed when I was a child when I read the Beano, the Bunty and the Diana, to name just a few. I loved all the usual suspects. The anarchy of Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and the Bash Street kids was just fab, if not politically correct. Later I graduated to the Jackie and I devoured the comic strip tales of teenage love, and  Cathy and Claire’s problem page.  And of course, when I was a child no 1960s Scottish Christmas was complete without the comics latest annuals –  along with the new Oor Wullie or The Broons collections.

But then, once I grew up, apart from revisiting some of them when my children were young, I moved on from comics.

That is until many years later, when I made the move from my role as a primary school class teacher into the much more challenging role of a support for learning teacher. I had pupils who struggled to read or write anything – either because it was an intellectual challenge that left them feeling defeated before they even started, or because their emotional problems, or way of seeing the world, acted as a barrier to any kind of engagement with the printed word. I tried lots of things that didn’t work well and then I had a breakthrough. I rediscovered comics and the ‘grown-up’ version of the preschool picture book – the graphic novel.

The old saying a picture is worth a thousand words was never so true. I soon discovered even the most reluctant or cut-off child found a graphically told story irresistible. Stories like The Wolves in the Walls, or The Day I Swapped my Dad for a Goldfish, both  by Neil Gaiman, or The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan worked their magic. And before long my pupils were wanting to write their own graphic novels, or in the case of pupils with communication difficulties such as autism, use a comic format to compile a social interaction script that they could share with others. But the most unexpected thing about using the comic/graphic format was it also worked with more able children. I was sometimes asked to support and stretch these children too. Children who’d been coasting, who’d lost motivation because things came so easily to them, they too were inspired by the genre to experiment, to try new things in their writing and in their reading. Pictures can be the key to storytelling. They’re efficient, economic and vivid.

Comics and Graphic Novels for the grown-ups

Comic books have been around a long time for sure – think of all the Marvel heroes. But I think they’ve come to the fore again in our now highly visual,  online, picture-based world of Tumblr, Instagram and the selfie-based, shared status update. And the effect of that goes way beyond just children’s or young adult’s reading.

Comic books, graphic novels and graphic non-fiction are increasingly popular with grown-ups too. For example there’s Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis about her life in Iran, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home about living with her secretly gay father, and  Joe Sacco’s Palestine or his more recent Journalism. If you’re not a comic format fan why not get out of your reading comfort zone and give them a try? Any of the above would be a good place to start. As of course would Henry’s blog and his book George’s Run, Part 1 which I will review in my next post.

Discover a Great Blog and Learn More about the Graphic Arts

But in the meantime, if you want to know more about the grown-up world of comics and graphic novels then do visit Henry ‘s blog.  There’s everything from Wonder Woman to Star Wars. And Henry’s a welcoming host who’s happy to interact.

Book Review: The Girl on the Ferryboat by Angus Peter Campbell

Girl on the Ferryboat

Genre: Contemporary fiction

I had already read a previous book by Angus Peter Campbell, Archie and the North Wind,  I reviewed it here. So I came to read this one expecting great things. I wasn’t disappointed.

The writing is lyrical. Yes, there are smatterings of Gaelic, but this in no way interferes with the reading of the book in English, on the contrary it adds another layer of texture to an already beautiful work of prose.

There’s a sort of magical realism quality to the telling of the tale. It’s a story of love––of love and its possibilities––of lifelong love, of love lost, love unrequited and love found. And intertwined with the lives and loves of the characters there are the opposing forces of chance and fate.

The main character, Alasdair is prompted to look back over his life after a chance re-encounter with Helen whilst travelling on a Hebridean ferry. The two had first met on a similar ferry crossing about forty years before. That meeting had been brief as they passed each other and exchanged a few words on the staircase between decks on board. But it had made an impression on them both. Alasdair reflects on what might have been and what has been. He recalls the time in his youth when, on leaving university he returned home from Oxford to the island of Lewis and worked with a local boat builder to build a boat for a couple of elderly neighbours. These elderly neighbours had experienced a long and happy life together and still had hopes, plans and dreams. He then recalls his own experiences of love––of his first love and then his own long-lasting and happy marriage which ended with his wife’s death. Helen’s story is also told. Indeed there’s a lot of head and time hopping but the whole remains coherent.

The Scottish Hebrides, especially the island of Mull, are beautifully represented as are the ways of island life. But this is no parochial tale. On the contrary the characters are well travelled and worldly wise. Yes, it’s an introspective story, but it’s also outward looking and universal at times.

And although there’s a wonderful magical wistful a quality to the story, the nostalgia is never hopeless. On the contrary the mood is one of acceptance and of hope. Alasdair acknowledges that misunderstandings can have long term, sometimes negative, implications on a person’s fate. But he also recognises that active decision making can lead to positive effects.

This book is a short, poignant, sweet but not sickly, journey through the lives of its characters. in places it reads like a memoir.

Campbell has crafted a tapestry––a tapestry where some of the panels are rather abstract yes, but the whole is well stitched together. It could have got horribly messy but it doesn’t. And, ultimately as with any art,  it’s down to the reader to interpret the meaning.

Type of read: Evening, in a quiet room – just the sounds of a ticking clock and a crackling fire, curtains drawn and with a whisky to hand.

The Girl on the Ferryboat is published by Luath and is available in hardback, paperback and e-book formats.

Book Review: The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Jessie Lamb 2

Genre: Contemporary earth-based science-fiction

This is Jane Rogers eighth book, but it’s the first one that I’ve read by her. The Testament of Jessie Lamb was a bestseller and Man Booker nominee when it came out in 2012 and I’m ashamed to say it’s been languishing on my Kindle since then. But at last I recently got round to reading it and I’m very glad that I did. A reviewer writing in Scotland’s Herald newspaper described it as The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) colliding with The Children of Men (PD James) and to me that seems very apt.

It’s a deeply unsettling tale set in the near future and tells of humanity facing extinction. Due to a bio-toxin having been released, presumably by bio-terrorists although this isn’t fully explained, a disease known as Maternal Death Syndrome or MDS now afflicts any woman who gets pregnant. The disease is a sort of cross between CJD and AIDS and is always fatal. Research into a cure is ongoing but in the meantime all that can be done to protect fertile women is to give them a contraceptive implant. And with no babies being born, humanity’s future existence looks to be doomed.

The story is told by a first-person narrator, teenager Jessie Lamb. She experiences all the usual teenage angsty stuff – parents who don’t understand her, issues with friends, the rush and the awkwardness of first love, and a need to strike out, rebel and be herself. But this is all overlaid and undermined by the presence of the deadly MDS.

When a vaccine that will ensure very young, i.e. under sixteen-and-a half-years-old, surrogate mothers will be able to be implanted with and carry to term pre-MDS frozen embryos, it seems like there might be hope. But it will come at a price. The vaccine only protects the babies. The surrogate mothers will still succumb to MDS and they will die.

Jessie decides to volunteer herself as a surrogate. It’s part selfless act, part naive, part rebellion and it’s a heart-wrenching read as the reader follows Jessie’s feelings and her parent’s and friend’s reactions to her decision.

The author raises other questions about how human’s have messed up. There are subplots dealing with green and ecological matters, with vegetarianism and animal cruelty. They didn’t seem to me to be entirely necessary and sometimes they were a bit clunky in their intrusion into the main story. But that would be my only complaint.

Type of read: Overall this is an excellent, thought-provoking and intriguing, if rather scary, read. Read it in a well-lit room with a dram or two of good whisky to hand.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is published by Canongate and is available as a paperback, an ebook and as an audio-book.

 

Displacement: From the Hebrides to the Middle East and back

The reasons behind the plot and settings of my second novel

Displacement Cover MEDIUM WEB - Copy

When I wrote Displacement, I wanted to explore what knocks people’s lives off course, what pushes them out of their normal place and space. I also wanted to examine the consequences of both physical and emotional displacement. In other words i wanted to look at what happens when people are forced by circumstances to change their location – both external and internal.

At the emotional level, I wanted to explore the displacement caused by grief, betrayal, illness and ageing and I’ll share more of the background to this in a subsequent post. But I also wanted to explore the long term consequences of physical displacement, of what happens when people are forced to abandon their home and culture in order to stay alive – and that’s what I’m looking at in this post.

When I came to write Displacement, three examples of the forced movement of people were in my mind – two from the relatively recent past, and one that has existed since the 1940s and continues to the present day. The first was the forced eviction of people from their land in the north of Scotland. The evidence of the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries is still visible today. And this, combined with the earlier punitive measures put in place by the victorious Hanoverian side following the Battle of Culloden, meant that Gaelic culture came close to being eliminated. The wearing of tartan was outlawed as was speaking Gaelic. The organisation of Highland society by the clan system came to an end and thousands of Scots were forced to emigrate to Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand.

The second example of the forced displacement of people that I had in mind was the much deadlier clearance of a whole culture that was wrought in Nazi Germany. I saw an item on Scottish television marking the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport that took place just before the second world war. This happened when Great Britain agreed to accept 10,000 Jewish refugee children from Germany and Austria. The children were taken in by British families and most never saw their parents again as they died in the Holocaust. Some survivors of the Kindertransport were interviewed about their experiences of arriving in and growing up in Scotland in their adoptive families. Their stories of stoicism and survival made quite an impression on me.

And the third example is that of the plight of the Palestinian people displaced from their homes by the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 following on from the end of the Second World War.

I brought the three together in Displacement by making the late mother of the main female character, Rachel, a Kindertransport survivor who was taken in by a family in Glasgow and who later married a native of the Isle of Skye (in the Scottish highlands) and settled there. Rachel lives on Skye, but her brother has followed his Jewish heritage and emigrated to Israel-Palestine.

And because of the significant emotional upheavals in Rachel’s life, she decides to visit her brother in his adopted homeland and see if she too can find a renewed sense of home by being there.

Hence the action in the novel moves between these two very different places and addresses many layers and levels of displacement as Rachel tries to decide where in the world her future lies.

And I was able to describe both settings from experience.

I’m a Scot and I live in the Scottish Hebrides so I’m steeped in that environment and its history. The wild and often challenging landscape, the resilience and resourcefulness needed to survive here, and the still visible evidence of whole townships abandoned and left to crumble when the inhabitants were forced off their land – all lend themselves to the exploration of the themes of upheaval and displacement .

I’ve also been to Israel-Palestine several times. It’s a country that fascinates me and it’s certainly no stranger to upheaval.

My link with the Middle East dates back to when I was fourteen and to my high school days in Edinburgh. A new girl joined the class and I was the one who volunteered to look after her. The new girl was Revital and she was an Israeli. Her father was doing a PhD at Edinburgh university and had brought his family with him for the duration. Revital and I quickly became friends. So much so that after she and her family returned home we kept in touch and in 1975 during my long summer holidays from university I travelled to Israel to visit her. As she was doing her national service at the time we could only meet up at certain times, so I worked on a kibbutz for a bit and did a bit of travelling. The kibbutz was on the Golan Heights – something I didn’t tell my mother who was worried enough about me visiting what she saw as a very dangerous country. I wasn’t worried though; I had the invincibility of youth. And I was smitten by the place – its beauty, its ancient landscape and its vitality.

I’ve revisited since then. One trip was in 1993 and coincided with the optimism which followed the signing of the Oslo Accord. The Palestinian flag flew from balconies, houses and cars – something that would have been illegal before the Accord. The atmosphere was relaxed, peace seemed to have been established. Revital and her husband were activists for the peace settlement and knew there was still a lot of work to be done, but were hopeful that they could now live and bring up their children in a new, constructive and co-operative society with all their neighbours regardless of background, religion, or race. Fast forward to my most recent visit in 2012 and the situation had deteriorated to worse than before 1993. All optimism for a peaceful and fair settlement was gone. Revital and her husband continued to work for a peaceful solution, trying to raise awareness amongst their Israeli friends of the true plight of the Palestinians. Her husband, an academic has written several books on the subject and speaks on it all over the world. You can view one of his many talks here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qblO4u0pF9M And Revital is part of Machsom Watch – who in their own words are

a volunteer organization of Israeli women who are peace activists from all sectors of society. We oppose the Israeli occupation in the area known as the West Bank, we oppose the appropriation of Palestinian land and the denial of Palestinian human rights.  We support the right of Palestinians to move freely in their land and oppose the checkpoints which severely restrict Palestinian daily life.

 And amongst other things they, ‘conduct daily observations of Israel Defense Force checkpoints in the West Bank and the hamlets in the Jordan Valley.’ (taken from the Machsom website at http://www.machsomwatch.org/en/about-us)

When I visited in 2012 I accompanied Revital on one of these checkpoint observations. It was a bit scary – I’ve not been that close to a soldier on active duty before or to an automatic weapon – but it was an interesting and enlightening experience. Palestinians, including the elderly, the sick, and the pregnant are given a lot of hassle while just trying to go about their ordinary daily business such as visiting family or attending hospital appointments.

So all of the above was in my head as I wrote the novel and I incorporated some of my own experiences into the story – from Rachel’s life as a crofter to the realities of life in the Middle East.

Footnote re current refugees:

I’m not a historian, a politician or an activist, so I wrote simply as a human being reflecting on the plight of other human beings and on the injustices of enforced displacement inflicted by some of us on those we perceive as ‘other’.

But, as I mentioned above, I’m only too aware of the plight of refugees from Syria right now as they try to get Europe. I’ve donated to charities and written to my MP – as I’m sure many of you will have – and I will continue to do whatever else I can to help, albeit in a small way. I’m particularly proud that my relatively small and remote community is, as I write this, collecting desperately needed items for those refugees and as soon as there’s enough to fill the articulated lorry that is on standby, these items will be driven to Greece for delivery to those who need them.

So by way of acknowledging displacement as an ever-present and often devastating fact in human life, I thought I’d end by including the cartoon below. It has been shared a lot on social media recently in relation to the recent deaths in the Mediterranean and to the refugee crisis in general. (The cartoon is actually from 2014 and was created Australian cartoonist and fellow wordpress blogger Simon Kneebone, in response to the time when boatloads of people were trying to reach Australia from Indonesia.)

Refugees-pic-edited