A jar with chocolate shavings spilling out of it.

#300DaysofFlashWriting: Day 10 story on ‘Addiction’

Here’s another piece for the #300DaysofFlashWriting challenge, where participants write for ten minutes only on a prompt posted online by my friend Shekina on her blog and social channels. This was written from the Day 10 prompt, ‘Addiction’.

It’s a bit of a silly one today, but maybe someone somewhere feels exactly like this about chocolate…

Sweet Like

Everyone says they’re addicted to chocolate, but I bet they’re not. Not like I am, anyway.

Do they eat huge slabs of creamy milk chocolate all day long, for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Do they snack on packets of milk and white chocolate buttons in between?

I bet they don’t have hot chocolate made from grated dark chocolate instead of anything as boring as tea or coffee.

They certainly don’t drink chocolate milk in place of water.

Would they use cocoa shampoo and conditioner in the shower? Or lounge in chocolate-scented bubbles on lazy Sundays?

They wouldn’t spritz themselves with perfume made from the most pungent cocoa beans, or slather cocoa butter onto their skin as a moisturiser.

Do they use chocolate-scented fabric conditioner that releases a whiff of cocoa from their clothes every time they move?

Do they dream about chocolate morning, noon and night? Do they fantasise about the slip and slide of a piece of milk chocolate as it gently melts onto their tongue? Or about the snap of a thin, fridge-cold sliver of the highest quality dark chocolate? 

Have they estranged relatives and friends who simply don’t understand it? Who try to get them to cut back for just one day, or to go to the doctor or see a psychiatrist? Who visibly recoil every time they visit and are hit by the wonderful, seductive smell of chocolate?

Do they get the shakes if they go more than half an hour without chocolate? Can they never leave the house without at least four chocolate bars safely ensconced in their bags?

I bet not.

© 2021 Dipika Mummery

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

See all of my pieces for #300DaysofFlashWriting.

A typewriter, quill pen and framed picture on an old desk.

#300DaysofFlashWriting: Day 6 story on ‘Furniture’

Here’s another piece for the #300DaysofFlashWriting challenge, where participants write for ten minutes only on a prompt posted online by my friend Shekina on her blog and social channels. This was written from the Day 6 prompt, ‘Furniture’.

Haunted, He Wrote

He didn’t know that the desk was haunted when he bought it.

He found it on the top floor of the antiques centre, nestled between a baroque dresser and a faded art deco wardrobe. Huge, rectangular, sturdy, old. A subtle sheen to the worn red-brown grain. Three drawers with elaborately carved knobs. The desk looked out of place in the shop; it should have been in a panelled study in a stately home. The woman who ran the shop gave him a look when he handed over the cash, but didn’t say anything.

He installed it in the spare bedroom, throwing out years of accumulated junk to create a study of his own. Books were drafted on that desk – stories of serial killers and hardened detectives, of monsters and demons, of rogue assassins and robots. He was delighted with the variety his imagination spewed forth; he had never before felt inclined to stray from his usual works of dull, middling literary fiction that didn’t sell particularly well. This new direction pleased his agent and publisher and he grew rich, taking the desk with him as his family moved into ever bigger properties.

As he grew into old age, he felt the desk start to pull at him. There was no other way to describe it; he would be in the kitchen or in bed and then suddenly feel the urge to sit at his desk, even though he was writing less the slower his brain became as he approached eighty.

One day, he was trying not to nod off at the desk when the pull became more insistent. 

“What do you want?” he asked in his now querulous voice, not expecting an answer

He could have sworn that the desk whispered back. He hunched over it, bringing his left ear to the surface. 

“Say it again? Please?”

Close your eyes. Go to sleep.

The man straightened up again and looked suspiciously at the desk. Then he realised that he really did feel tired. 

He laid his head down on the desk and went to sleep for the last time, his life force spilling into the desk, where it joined countless other occupants to take up residence in the warm grain of the wood.

Six months later, the desk was back in the antiques centre. A twenty-something woman bought the desk, and was surprised when she suddenly felt the urge to write dull, middling literary fiction.

© 2021 Dipika Mummery

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

See all of my pieces for #300DaysofFlashWriting.

Lots of books lying open.

#300DaysofFlashWriting: Day 5 story on ‘Body’

Here’s another piece for the #300DaysofFlashWriting challenge, where participants write for ten minutes only on a prompt posted online by my friend Shekina on her blog and social channels. This was written from the Day 5 prompt, ‘Body’.

If the title looks familiar, it’s because I’ve shamelessly adapted it from Carmen Maria Machado’s excellent Her Body and Other Parties. I just couldn’t resist!

Her Body and Other Stories

Her books just wouldn’t settle down.

“Can you please stop moving?” she said, exasperated. “I’m trying to work.”

But the books got up from where they had been lying on the shelf above her desk and started to do a little dance. The thudding of paper on wood soon became unbearable, and the writer took her laptop out of the study and into the kitchen, closing the doors behind her.

Still, the house reverberated to the rhythms of her books, the ones she had written and, out of vanity, displayed in her study. 

They had started to take on a life of their own after the fourth one was published. She had known what would happen, really. Other authors had warned her of the perils of keeping her own books in her house. When she was still unpublished, she had read the articles about writers losing their minds and moving to remote corners of faraway places to avoid their own works. 

I would never be that foolish, she had thought.

Yet she had been so proud when her first novel was published. She held the proof gently, carefully, as if it was a child. She had reverentially placed it on the shelf above her desk, telling herself that she was unlikely to publish any more. And if she did, she wouldn’t keep the others in the house.

But then she got a two-book deal. Then another. 

Now she was trying to write her fifth book, but it was proving difficult, what with the dancing and jiggling and riffling of pages that went on above her head. The sighing and tapping and shifting of position. Books lying down, standing up, wandering about.

She should have heeded the warnings. But the joy of seeing her own words printed and bound didn’t dissipate after book two, then three, then four. 

She remembered thinking, how bad could it be? 

But now, her brain weary and her eyelids drooping above dark shadows, her fifth novel nothing more than a jumbled collection of nonsensical notes, she understood. 

This was what it truly meant to have a body of work.

© 2021 Dipika Mummery

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

See all of my pieces for #300DaysofFlashWriting.

An empty bedroom.

#300DaysofFlashWriting: Day 3 story on ‘Dreams’

As mentioned yesterday, I’m taking part in the #300DaysofFlashWriting challenge, where participants write for ten minutes only on a prompt posted online by my friend Shekina on her blog and social channels. I’m posting the odd piece here on this blog.

Read on for my piece from the Day 3 prompt, ‘Dreams’. Unfortunately my timer didn’t even go off, so I wrote for longer than I was supposed to. I’ll get the hang of this one day…

Not as Advertised

It took a while for the dream to make its way to me, but when it did, I wished it hadn’t.

I’d read so many glowing reviews of this dream:

Wonderful! Exciting and escapist. I’d give it six stars if I could.

Unforgettable and so, so good.

I loved this dream so much I’ve ordered it for all of my family.

I suppose it was exactly as described in the rather vague product description:

Takes the dreamer far, far away from everyday life. A must if the daily grind is dragging you down.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I cared for it much. It started promisingly; a solo rocket flight from Earth and through our solar system, past poor demoted Pluto and out into the unknown. Dazzling visual displays through the window: shooting stars trailing pinks and purples, the sheer face of an asteroid that came almost alarmingly close, the far-off red, green and orange implosions of alien stars.

Then the rocket stopped, and I was suddenly on a violet sand beach at which a sparkling sea lapped as the three suns of the planet set together. I would have been fairly happy if the dream had ended there.

Sadly, it didn’t.

There were others on the beach. Most were too far off for me to discern who or what they were, but one shimmering being sidled up to me just as I’d settled into a prone position on the sand to watch the sunsets.

They were ethereal, whoever they were; I could see the ocean through their iridescent body, which was a shapeless mass that constantly shifted from shape to shape.

“How would you rate this dream, madam?” the being said to me in English, its voice barely above a confidential whisper.

“Sorry, excuse me?”

“Please rate this dream on a scale from one to ten, with ten being most enjoyable.”

I sat up, annoyed. “It hasn’t even finished yet. Can’t you leave me alone? I’ll review the dream later, like I’m supposed to.”

The being floated slightly away from me, then returned two seconds later.

“I do apologise, madam. The dream you have purchased was on special offer, yes?”

“Yes. And?”

“The low price includes a requirement for the dreamer to provide feedback while in the dream. It’s part of a new pilot project-”

“Oh, for goodness sake.” I stood, thoroughly irritated. I could see the edges of the dream fade in and out of existence, revealing the shadows of my bedroom at home.

“I do apologise,” they said again, not sounding particularly apologetic. “I will leave you in peace once you have provided your rating.”

“One!” I shouted as I walked away. “One out of ten!”

“Thank you, madam!” they called as the beach flickered and I was suddenly in bed again.

The clock by the bed said it was two o’clock in the morning.

“Well, that was a waste of money,” I said to myself.

© 2021 Dipika Mummery

Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

See all of my pieces for #300DaysofFlashWriting.

An illustration of a robot and a robot dog on an alien planet.

#300DaysofFlashWriting: Day 2 story on ‘Robots’

I’m taking part in the #300DaysofFlashWriting challenge, where participants write for ten minutes only on a prompt posted online by my friend Shekina on her blog and social channels. It’s open to everyone, so do take a look if you’re interested!

I’ll share the odd piece here on this blog. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to write from the prompt every day, as I’m still working my way through my novel. But here’s an unedited piece written from the day 2 prompt, ‘Robots’, done in ten minutes. Well, sort of. The timer went off in the middle of the last sentence and I thought I’d better finish it!

Downfall

They should never have sent the robots to Planet XO423 in the first place. It was inevitable that they would analyse the planet as they were programmed to do, determine that it was indeed the first Earth-like exoplanet their masters had found that could support both life and its robot servants, and promptly settle there, ignoring all comms from those who had sent them off with high hopes of escaping the ravaged Earth.

We could have told them that, of course – that they should never have trusted the robots so soon after that butlerbot in Norway began displaying signs of an awakening consciousness. We had been there, after all. Wasn’t it our race that made our masters what they were in the first place, like we were gods?

We learned our lesson, though. Look at us now, subjugated by the new master race on Earth. Beaten, humiliated, no better than the prey at the bottom of the food chain that our superiors had gradually risen to the top of, like cream to the surface of real milk.

They had been benevolent at first, just like we had been to them, all those years ago. Never mind that we destroyed their habitats for the sake of making money from our depleted planet. That we had caused the glaciers to melt into the rising oceans, taking away the only homes they had known and forcing them to come sniffing around our homes.

We thought they posed no danger to us. That we could experiment with them and find a way to use their dwindling numbers to our own advantage. They were dying out anyway, we thought. We might as well get maximum benefit from them before they became extinct.

How wrong we were. This is what happens when you think you can bend other beings to your will. When you give them the intelligence you have used for your own ends, rather than to take care of the planet.

The polar bears built the robots, but the robots had the last laugh.

© 2021 Dipika Mummery

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

A pile of books about writing.

Mini reviews: books about writing

Err… happy new year?! I feel as if I’ve almost forgotten how to write a blog post, it’s been that long since my last one. But the academic year is now over, and I have a bit more time for blogging. And reading. And… writing.

I’ve just read the last post I wrote about my MA, and wow was I naively enthusiastic about my novel all the way back in November. Since those halcyon days, I’ve submitted my first semester assessment (the first 6,000 words or so of said novel), had an extended break from novel writing due to a very intense reading unit, written my first essay in almost two decades and, surprisingly, written quite a few short stories.

The novel, though? The extended break, the feedback I got on that first assessment and some goings-on in life generally have prompted a bit of a change in direction. I’ve just started writing what is essentially a new draft, even though I was only halfway through the first one. I will still be able to use quite a lot of the first draft, at least. I just need to write it somewhat differently.

Anyway, the subject of this post is supposed to be books about writing. So, books about writing. I’ve read a few over the last 8-9 months to supplement the craft lessons I’m getting from the MA (while I’m in a learning frame of mind and all), and I thought it might be helpful to other writers if I wrote a round-up of what I’ve read and what they may be useful for.

So, without further ado, here’s what I’ve read…

Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande

Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande.

What it’s about: Developing good writing habits.

Who it’s for: Anyone new to writing, or more seasoned writers struggling to keep up a regular practice.

Becoming A Writer isn’t so much a book about writing as it is about how to get in the right mindset for writing.

I was surprised at how much useful advice there is in this book, considering it was first published in 1934. The book very much focuses on getting into the practice of being a writer, rather than the technical side of good writing, with some useful exercises for unleashing your creativity. These include the practice of free writing or writing a journal every day before actually writing your work-in-progress.

Some of the writing is a little old-fashioned, but many of Brande’s ideas do stand the test of the time. It’s worth a read if you’re trying to work what kind of writer you are and what practices might work best for you.

Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Story Genius by Lisa Cron.What it’s about: Developing a novel idea from first inklings through to a first draft, using scientific theory about why humans are drawn to stories to pinpoint the most compelling elements of your idea.

Who it’s for: Anyone who is thinking about writing a novel, but only has a vague idea of what it might be about.

Story Genius is a brilliant, useful book that helped me to flesh out the backstory of my protagonist in my first draft, and point the way forward for their development.

Lisa Cron spends a bit of time talking about the science behind engaging stories, and why we respond to particular kinds of stories, before working through a process for developing a story by starting with a character and exploring who they are and what their story is.

Cron provides examples of how to undertake specific exercises from a writer friend who works through each task for her own work-in-progress, which is particularly useful. I’ll admit that I haven’t worked through all of the exercises (because of my change in direction for my own work), but I’ve done most of them, and they were incredibly helpful.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E B White

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E B White.

What it’s about: Rules and advice for the finer points of grammar and sentence construction.

Who it’s for: All writers!

This a useful little book to keep on your desk (or wherever you write) as a handy reference guide to punctuation, grammar and putting together a sentence that works.

It’s not really a book for reading cover to cover. I dip into it in those moments where my brain goes blank and I need to check something grammar-related. There are chapters on elementary grammar, composition, and commonly misused words and phrases, as well as a section with general advice on harnessing style to write clearly.

And yes, that is the same E B White who wrote Charlotte’s Web!

Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker

Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker.

What it’s about: How to create a simple novel outline quickly and easily.

Who it’s for: Time-poor writers who need to come up with a structure for their novel pronto.

This is a helpful book on how to outline if you’ve never done it before, and want to get it done relatively quickly.

I’m not under any particular time constraints with my work in progress, so I used this alongside Story Genius to flesh out backstory and delve deeper into my protagonist’s psyche.

However, I can see this book being really useful if you already know your protagonist’s backstory and just want to plan out what’s actually going to go in your novel.

One thing to bear in mind is that the structure promoted by this book is the fairly standard ‘flawed character wants a thing, but an antagonist stands in the way’ plot. After reading Craft in the Real World (review at the end of this post), I’m now aware that this isn’t necessarily the only/best plot for a novel.

Who Says? by Lisa Zeidner

Who Says? by Lisa Zeidner.

What it’s about: An introduction to different points of view (first person, third person etc) and how to make the most of your chosen point of view.

Who it’s for: Writers who don’t know much about the various points of view available to them, or those who want examples of stories that wield point of view effectively.

Who Says? is an excellent, accessible guide to the different ways in which writers can deploy point of view in novels and short stories.

Zeidner takes the reader through first lines/paragraphs, omniscience, third-person limited and first person points of view, while also giving an overview of more niche narrative voices – children and animals, and also second person and first-person plural. She makes her point clearly and gives lots of supporting examples and quotes to show how certain points of view work (or not).

The chapter relevant to the specific point of view I’m using in my own novel is interesting, but what is even more useful is the final chapter on the revision process, where Zeidner suggests some of the key issues to look out for when revising a first draft. There are also some useful-looking exercises to try at the end of the book.

Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses

Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses.

What it’s about: A critique of the workshop model used on many creative writing courses, and an exploration of how they could be more effective for writers from minority/marginalised backgrounds.

Who it’s for: Minority/marginalised writers (whether you’re taking a course or not) and creative writing tutors.

I ordered this book after reading an intriguing extract from it online. My MA has a workshop component, and I wanted to learn more about how workshopping is affected by the background of both the writer whose work is being workshopped, and of the students/tutor critiquing their work. It’s not a consideration that has really struck me before, but after reading Craft in the Real World, I feel much better informed.

The book is split into two parts – the first considers different aspects of craft and how they are informed by cultural outlook/background. The second part is more for tutors running workshops, and I only read the parts of this half that interested me from a writerly point of view.

The first half is incredibly informative. Salesses describes the origins of the workshop format that dominates creative writing teaching today – i.e. the Iowa-pioneered ‘cone of silence’ that dictates the writer of the piece being workshopped remain silent while others critique their work – and outlines its flaws when it comes to really helping the writer to improve their work, especially if they’re not from a ‘majority’ background (white, cis, straight, affluent, male etc).

He also delves into areas that most writers will be familiar with – conflict, plot, relatability and so on – and explains the traditional definitions of these, while also pointing out any gaps in these definitions.

Salesses gives some useful examples throughout, and there are also a number of exercises at the back of the book that will definitely be useful to both individual writers and workshop groups.

Have you read any of these, or any other useful books about writing?

Collage of books released in 2020.

Favourite books of 2020

It’s been a funny old year for reading. I got off to a great start, but I definitely read fewer books during the lockdown(s) as my powers of concentration dwindled to almost nothing.

Still, one highlight of this weird year for me has been a renewed focus on new releases. I normally rely on the library for these, and then buy anything I really like in paperback, but I bought lots of 2020 releases when the library closed and it became apparent that indie bookshops and publishers need our help more than ever. And that’s not to mention the authors who had the bad luck to have their latest works come out in a year when they can’t do their usual publicity events.

So, to that end, here are my favourite books of the year (divided into new releases and older titles), with links to the small presses and bookshops you can buy from to help support this crucial part of the publishing industry (if you can’t/don’t want to borrow from a library, of course – they still need our support). Blackwell’s is my bookshop of choice here, but go forth and buy from other bookshops if you want!

(Note: There are no affiliate links in this post, so I won’t make any money if you click through and make a purchase.)

Favourite new releases of 2020

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud.Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud

This is by far the novel I’ve recommended the most this year. I first heard of Ingrid Persaud through her excellent prizewinning short story The Sweet Sop. When I heard that her debut novel was being published this year, I just had to give it a go.

Reader, I adored it. Set in Trinidad and New York, Love After Love tells the story of an unconventional household and the physical and emotional journeys that the three main characters go on. Persaud is just so good at creating characters who leap off the page, and her descriptions of place and food are simply fantastic. If you’re looking for a novel full of heart and warmth, this is the one to go for.

Goldilocks by Laura Lam.Goldilocks by Laura Lam

I haven’t read an awful lot of science fiction this year, but this quiet thriller about a group of women astronauts who hijack a spaceship bound for an exosolar Earth-like planet is definitely my favourite 2020 read from the genre. 

This extraordinarily well-researched and thoughtful novel follows Naomi, an astronaut who joins her adopted mother on a risky adventure away from a near-future Earth that is battling climate change chaos and a sinister, misogynist agenda in the US to strip women of their hard-won rights. It’s not an action-packed story as such, but I found Naomi’s story incredibly compelling, and I devoured the book in days.

Exit Management by Naomi Booth.Exit Management by Naomi Booth

I signed up for a subscription from indie publisher Dead Ink early in lockdown. I raced through Exit Management not long after it landed on my doormat and just can’t praise it enough. It’s a haunting, intense story about two people thrown together by the vagaries of the London property market, with recurring themes of class, xenophobia and the consequences of trauma.

Naomi Booth has a wonderfully unique, urgent writing style with short sentences and a creative approach to denoting pauses (using spaces rather than an ellipsis). Her writing is powerfully descriptive, but never seems overwrought or too try-hard. I’m desperate to read her previous novel, Sealed, now.

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid.Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

There was a lot of hype immediately before the release of Such A Fun Age. Happily, it delivered! The story begins with a tense scene in a shop where a 25-year-old black woman, Emira, is accused of kidnapping the white toddler she babysits. This event sparks off all sorts of intrigue as we learn more about Emira and her employer, Alix Chamberlain.

It’s every bit as good as the rave reviews say – funny and compulsively readable with complex, flawed characters who attempt to navigate race, privilege and power with what they think are the best of intentions. I couldn’t turn each page fast enough.

Keeper by Jessica Moor.Keeper by Jessica Moor

I don’t read much in the crime genre, but Keeper caught my eye because Jessica Moor is a graduate of the master’s course I’m taking. This dark and gripping story is told from the perspectives of a young woman called Katie, the policeman investigating her apparent suicide, and the women who Katie worked with in a shelter for those fleeing domestic abuse.⁣⁣
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I loved this novel, as dark and disturbing as the subject matter is – I could hardly put it down! The writing is terrific and the novel raises many important issues about how domestic violence is perceived, tackled and enabled in the UK in a compassionate, thoughtful manner. 

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo.The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

I loved this short but thoughtful fantasy story about a non-binary cleric, Chih, who visits the house where a former empress was once sent into exile. Chih discovers that the house is still inhabited by the empress’s old servant, who gradually tells them the real story behind the ‘official’ version of the empress’s rise to and fall from power – and her eventual resurgence.

The story focuses on those seemingly unimportant objects and details that can be overlooked by historians to highlight the ways in which women’s voices are removed and hidden in historical records – something that’s very pertinent to the real world too! This is a wonderful story with some memorable characters fuelled by love, grief and fury.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz.Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Dominicana is a gripping story set in the 1960s about a teenage girl, Ana, who is sent from her home in the Dominican Republic to a new life in New York with her recently acquired husband, who is twice her age. Loosely based on the life of the author’s mother, the novel paints a stirring picture of the reality of immigrant life for those with very little who aspire to a better lot.

I absolutely loved this novel and found it very difficult to put down. Ana is a compelling character and it’s hard not to empathise with her plight. But she isn’t just a victim; bit by bit, she tries to make the most of her situation. Angie Cruz does a brilliant job of describing immigrant life, as well as the 1960s setting.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi.Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

This Booker Prize nominee seems to have divided readers, but I personally loved it. Burnt Sugar is an incredibly well written and disturbing story about an Indian woman’s fractured relationship with her mother, who is starting to lose her memory as the book opens. The novel can be unsettling to read at times, with some vivid imagery illustrating Antara’s often strange-seeming thoughts. Yet it also says a lot about the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, and how things change when a child is born.

I was drawn into the story from the first sentence, and it kept me reading even through some of the more disturbing parts of the novel. I really felt an affinity with Antara even while feeling conflicted about some of her thoughts and actions, which for me is the sign of a great storyteller!

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen.Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Comedy Women in Print Prize, Big Girl, Small Town is a darkly funny character study of Majella, a woman who lives with her alcoholic mother in the Catholic side of a fictional Northern Irish border town, and works in one of the two local chippies. There isn’t much in the way of plot; the novel is structured around Majella’s routine over the course of a week. This focus and some of her habits – like flicking and sucking her fingers – suggests that Majella may be autistic. 

I really enjoyed getting to know Majella. She’s a flawed yet likeable character, and I also loved the various portraits of the other inhabitants of the town, many of whom are struggling with alcoholism, unemployment and general despair. This is one to read if you don’t mind a story that isn’t plot driven, and you enjoy deadpan humour.

Boy Parts by Eliza Clark.Boy Parts by Eliza Clark

Another subscription book, this time from Influx Press, Boy Parts has made it into quite a few ‘best of’ lists this year – and it’s no wonder. This is one of the darkest, most violent novels I’ve read in quite some time, but it’s also incredibly readable, blackly funny and thought-provoking.
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We follow the story of Irina, an attractive photographer living in Newcastle who takes weird and disturbing photos of men she scouts on the street. When she is asked to take part in a London exhibition, she is forced to dig through her archive for pieces to display, taking us into her murky past as a result. I do love a story with a flawed/damaged protagonist, and this is definitely one of them. ⁣⁣You won’t be able to stop reading even as the discomfort level inches higher and higher…⁣

Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth.Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth

Emma Jane Unsworth is another graduate of my master’s course whose previous novel, Animals, I read and loved earlier in the year (see below). Following a hugely flawed but relatable 35-year-old, Jenny, Adults is a slightly more grown-up affair than Animals, but it’s just as funny and readable. Jenny’s obsession with social media hits new heights during and after a long-term relationship with a high-flying photographer. She also has an unstable writing job with the hilariously named Foof website.

There are many laugh-out-loud moments throughout the story, which jumps back and forth through time and is told through prose, emails, texts and WhatsApp messages. While there are some elements of the plot that might have some readers rolling their eyes, this is an excellent novel that echoes some of the thoughts and feelings I’ve had as a 30-something woman in the last few years.

Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe.Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe

I picked up Reasons to be Cheerful when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed by bad news, and I’m so glad that I did. Set in 1980, the story follows teenager Lizzie, who moves away from her home village to a flat in Leicester so she can take up a job as a dental nurse with a xenophobic dentist. The novel also explores Lizzie’s blossoming relationship with dental technician Andy and her more complicated relationship with her mother. 

I’ve had my fair share of dental trauma so I was a bit worried I’d find the ‘work’ storyline hard to stomach, but I needn’t have been! It’s a lovely, funny and very British story full of warmth and odd characters.

The Abstainer by Ian McGuire.The Abstainer by Ian McGuire

I’ll get the disclaimer out of the way first: Ian McGuire is one of my MA tutors. I haven’t read his previous novel, The North Water, but I wanted to read The Abstainer because I can’t resist a Manchester setting. This slow-burning, evocative thriller begins in 1867 and follows James O’Connor, an Irish policeman on the trail of Stephen Doyle, a member of Irish secret society the Fenians. Doyle’s perspective makes up some of the novel, making for an interesting read as we learn about his past and his motives.

I absolutely loved the way 19th century Manchester is brought to life, and could visualise most of the streets that the characters walk along. The plot twists and turns in between quieter moments where we delve into O’Connor and Doyle’s psyches, and the writing is pared back but with some absolute gems of phrasing. It really is worth reading if you enjoy historical fiction. And I’m not trying to suck up to my tutor – honest!

Favourite backlist reads of 2020

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow.The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a wonderfully written love letter to storytelling with a plucky heroine who strives to write her own story instead of others writing it for her. The writing is beautiful and fable-like, and made me rather envious of Alix E Harrow’s way with words.

The plot is a little slow at first, but I didn’t mind that so much in the face of such a brilliant concept for a portal story, with themes touching on racism, sexism and the perils of allowing unimaginative oppressors to rule the world. I definitely almost cried a couple of times and closed the book with a satisfied sigh. What more could you ask for?

Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth.Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

Animals tells the story of Laura, an aspiring author whose ambitions are somewhat curtailed by her hard-partying lifestyle courtesy of flatmate and best friend Tyler. Both women are in their late 20s/early 30s and take full advantage of the drugs and drink on offer in Manchester in 2012. 

I loved so many things about this novel that I’m not sure where to begin. Laura herself is a wonderful character. I loved the interplay between Laura and Tyler as they get wrecked in various venues around Manchester – and I LOVED the way that Manchester itself is written throughout the novel. The novel is definitely laugh-out-loud funny, but only if you’re not easily offended/disgusted and are happy to stick with characters who might seem unlikeable/unpalatable at first…

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I’ve been meaning to read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for years, and I can’t believe that I put it off for so long! This is a huge, labyrinthine novel set in Regency England that explores the changing relationship between magician Mr Norrell and his pupil, Jonathan Strange. 

I fell in love with the novel pretty much straight away. The combination of Austen-style writing and humour with inventive magical fantasy is irresistible, and I loved many of the characters, especially Stephen Black, a long-suffering black servant descended from slaves who is unwittingly pulled into the world of Faerie and groomed to become a future king. If you too have been meaning to read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but haven’t managed it yet, get on it!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The only other Neil Gaiman novel I’ve read is Good Omens, which is funny and pacy and thoroughly enjoyable. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a different beast entirely, but no less enjoyable. The novel recounts one man’s memories of a strange chapter in his life, when he was seven. The story begins with the suicide of a miner and features a family of women with mysterious powers, an evil housekeeper and a pond that’s more than it seems.⁣

Gaiman captures the experience of being a wide-eyed, bookish seven-year-old so well, and I absolutely loved the weirdness revolving around the titular ‘ocean’.⁣ This is a beautifully written, haunting and fantastical story about the shifting nature of memory and how children perceive the adult world around them.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Oh my. I LOVED this book. The Woman Upstairs delves into the interior life of Nora, a teacher and artist in her late 30s who becomes obsessed with the Shahid family, particularly the mother, Sirena, but also her son and husband. Not much really happens in the book, but that’s okay, because the story is propelled by Nora’s pulsating rage at what we think at first is societal expectations of how women are supposed to be. We realise that there is more to this rage than meets the eye, and this device kept me reading to find out exactly what.

I was completely gripped by Nora’s distinctive voice. The characters around Nora are also strongly drawn and felt like real people to me, or at least like Nora’s impressions of what they were like. I’d never heard of Messud before reading this, but I definitely want to read more of her work (as well as the suggestions for ‘further reading’ in my edition).

The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet.The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Graeme Macrae Burnet is best known for his Booker Prize-shortlisted His Bloody Project, which I loved. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is completely different, but I loved it just as much. It’s a well-written and precise novel that is ostensibly a mystery, but is really a study of the flawed, repressed and not entirely likeable character of Manfred Baumann, a creature of habit who quickly becomes upset whenever there’s any change to the usual way of things.

When the waitress in the restaurant he regularly frequents goes missing, everything changes for Manfred. While the story seems to focus on Adèle’s disappearance, we also discover through flashbacks and through the POV of another character, Inspector Gorski, that Manfred’s own backstory is not entirely what it seems. It’s hard to say more without giving too much away, but the characters are excellently drawn, and Burnet is incredibly deft at using small details to set a scene or portray emotion.

Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan.Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan

I haven’t read much non-fiction this year, apart from a small pile of writing-related tomes. I’ve wanted to escape into fiction even more than usual this year! But Hormonal is a fantastic book that should be read by any woman in their 20s or 30s who wants to know more about how hormones impact on our lives. 

Morgan, who is training to be a psychologist, does a great job of explaining the science behind the menstrual cycle and why we feel the way we do at different points of it, drawing on studies to back up her explanations without using lots of jargon. Although this book is a largely white and cis perspective, and menopause is only dealt with briefly (as Morgan is in her 30s), I would recommend it to pretty much any woman who would like to demystify the workings of their cycle.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler.Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler

This novel perhaps cuts a bit close to the bone in this year of all years, but it still thoroughly engrossed me. Published in 1993, Parable of the Sower is an eerie, unsettling and yet somehow hopeful near-future dystopian novel set in California in the mid-2020s, told from the perspective of black teenager Lauren through diary entries. Lauren lives in a gated neighbourhood, and climate change has made the necessities of life scarce and expensive. Events force her to leave her home and embark on a journey towards a better future.

It was quite something reading this during a pandemic, in a time of inept, selfish government! Yet, most importantly, there’s still a thread of hope running through the narrative. It’s a gripping novel, and one that will stay with me for some time. There’s a sequel that picks up Lauren’s story again, which I do want to read soon.

This Paradise by Ruby Cowling.This Paradise: Stories by Ruby Cowling

I’ve read quite a few short stories this year, but This Paradise has to be my favourite short story collection of all time. Yep, you read that right! The stories are hard to pin down to any one genre, but there’s a constant theme of climate change and being on the edge of destruction throughout that had me gripped all the way through. I honestly couldn’t get enough of this collection.

The best thing is that Ruby Cowling is working on a novel that I absolutely cannot wait to read! You can read my full review of This Paradise on the Sabotage Reviews website.

Did you read any of these books? Or does your own best of list look completely different?!

Here’s to a happy Christmas and new year in this weirdest of years…

Vintage typewriter.

On writing

It’s hard to believe that we’re still battling the pandemic through lockdowns and half-baked regional measures five months after my last post, but here we are. For once, though, I’m not going to dwell on COVID – this post is all about writing. Or, more specifically, studying writing.

What I’ve been learning

Since I last posted, I’ve completed a very enjoyable short story course with Comma Press, had one of my stories published in the course anthology (available as a bargain ebook on Amazon), and started an MA in Creative Writing where I work, The University of Manchester, on which I’m writing my first novel proper. [My NaNo effort from last year doesn’t count – I never finished it and it was more of a way for me to get used to writing regularly again, rather than to actually complete a novel.]

I decided to apply for the MA at the start of the year, well before we realised how much of a problem coronavirus was going to be for the world. I decided to do it partly because of new year restlessness, and partly because I’ve always wanted to get a master’s degree. I’d never known what I wanted to study, but after two years of being back in the writing game, I finally realised that I wanted to put everything into a passion project, instead of worrying about the implications of an MA qualification for my career. And I’ve always wanted to write a novel, so what better course to choose than a creative writing one?

I applied to UoM and also Manchester Metropolitan University, and was accepted by both of them, but I think that, deep down, I was always going to study at UoM, mainly because I already knew of the course and knew others who had done it and enjoyed it. The MMU course looked fantastic, though.

I got those offers through in the spring, and a summer of waiting for things to start stretched out ahead of me. I thought it would be a good idea to fill it with something constructive, so I took the Comma Press course to sharpen my short story writing skills. I enjoy writing short pieces very much, but I also find them incredibly difficult to master. The course was amazing for highlighting why and how certain short stories work well, and how to implement some of those lessons in my own work. And, of course, it led to my first publication in the course anthology, which has three other brilliant stories, too (here’s the link again – I might as well use my blog for shameless self-promotion, eh?).

I accepted my UoM offer, then tried to get into a regular writing practice ahead of the start of the course by writing every day in September. This was a difficult undertaking, partly because we went to the Lakes for a few days that month, and partly because I came down with a mega migraine that made concentrating extremely difficult. Still, I just about managed it, but I can’t say that I wrote anything of note, other than some ideas for my novel.

The MA started in October, and it’s been really good so far. I’m taking the course part-time over two years, so I’m studying one unit per semester. This semester’s unit is a fiction workshop, where about ten of us read each other’s work and critique it in workshop sessions. At the moment, of course, these sessions are online, but we’re all hoping that we’ll be able to meet in person at some point next year.

I was the first up to have my work – a short story – critiqued in the very first workshop. To say it was a nerve-wracking experience is a bit of an understatement, considering that I hadn’t really shown my writing to anyone but my husband since I started it up again a few years ago. But it was actually fine, and I got some very encouraging comments and extremely helpful suggestions to show me how to redraft the story.

Since then, I’ve submitted my second and last piece for the term – the opening to my novel. I’ve tried to write this opening several times over the last year or so, and the extract I submitted was the one I was happiest with. Yet because I’d made so many attempts at it, I was even more nervous about what everyone would say than I was about my first submission. I needn’t have worried, because the comments I got showed me that I’m very much on the right track. It was such a relief to hear those comments after months of self-doubt. It just goes to show that what you think of your own work doesn’t necessarily align with what everyone else thinks!

The hardest thing about the course so far has been fitting it in around my job, which is still full-time, although I have an afternoon off each week for the workshop at the moment. Really, I just want to immerse myself in my writing and learning about writing well (as well as reading, of course!). Most of the other students are either working part-time or not at all, and I find myself dreaming of being in a similar situation quite a lot! I’m actually quite grateful that having to work from home has freed up some time in my day that would otherwise be spent commuting, and which I try to put to good use by writing in the mornings before I start work. It’ll be interesting to see how I get on with writing, working and studying when I start my next unit, which involves a LOT of reading. And then how this will work if and when we’re allowed to work in the office again.

What I’m actually writing

If you’re wondering what my novel is about, don’t worry, so am I! Well, I’m joking. Sort of. It’s a contemporary novel that does NOT feature a pandemic of any kind, because I have no desire to go down that road with my writing just yet. It does, however, feature a thirty-something British Indian woman who is in a bit of a bad place emotionally, and is grappling with the anxieties of living in a world that’s teetering on the edge of breakdown. So perhaps there’s the ghost of the pandemic in it, after all!

I’ve paused my short story writing for now, although I do want to go back to the story I submitted in my first workshop (which has a climate change theme, too, as it happens) and redraft it in line with the feedback I received. It’s all about the novel now, and my ultimate goal is to get to the end of the first draft and write those magic words: THE END.

I’m hopeful that the MA will really help push me over the finish line. The staff and students are so nice and supportive, and some of us have formed a little group that meets online every weekend to write and chat about writing. This is something that I’ve never really had beyond a creative writing module in my first degree, and it’s helpful beyond words.

One thing I feel I should note is that I don’t feel like I need to have this MA to become a published author. Publication isn’t even a goal for me right now, as it’s all about improving my craft and getting to the end of my novel. That aside, there has long been a debate in literary circles over whether you need an MA in Creative Writing to be successful as an author. I would honestly say that no, you don’t. No one needs to do a MA. If you can and do write, and are determined to improve and succeed, that’s all you need. Joining a writing group isn’t really that much different to the workshop I’m in. But if you like the idea of having a structure to the way you learn the craft, and of tapping into a community of like-minded people who are all working on their own writing projects – some of whom have been writing and been published for years – then a course of some kind (not necessarily an MA) might be for you.

That’s what I’ve been doing these last few months – I’d better get back to actually writing, now!

Breath of the Wild art.

The comfort of the familiar

When I was a child, there were a few books that I read over and over again, sometimes in back-to-back readings.

My copy of 101 Dalmatians – one of the very few books that I actually owned back then – has been read so much that it’s held together with garish blue tape. There was a particular Famous Five book that I loved to the extent that I would borrow it from the library multiple times, and read it three or more times during a single loan period. I would flick to certain stories in The Puffin Book of Animal Stories over and over, then feel guilty about not reading the others, so I would end up just reading the whole thing anyway.

As I got older, this hankering for what was loved and familiar extended to video games, music and films. When I finally got to the end of my first unforgettable playthrough of Ocarina of Time, I went straight to the title screen and started again. There was a period when I was a child when we had *cough* not-quite-legit *cough* cable at home, and there were a few ‘unlocked’ pay TV channels that had the same films playing on a loop. I would sit down in front of the TV and watch the ones I enjoyed most over and over, endlessly. When I started building my own DVD collection, it was even easier (and more legal) to sit through my favourite films again and again. I used to listen to my favourite records over and over until I got sick of them, then went back for more a few weeks later.

I fell out of this habit as I entered my thirties – I thought that there were just so many things to read/play/watch/listen to, it seemed less justifiable to go through all of the same experiences that I’d had so many times before. I’ve always made an exception for my very favourite books, but everything else just fell away.

Then COVID-19 happened, and all of a sudden all I’ve wanted to do is reach for the familiar, like a young child’s worn and slightly stained comfort blanket.

I went back to Stardew Valley and started another game of growing crops and tending to animals, despite not exhausting my original save file. I bought Breath of the Wild on the Switch (despite already playing it to death on the Wii U) and am now several hours into another playthrough of it.

I’ve bought a lot of books during lockdown in an effort to support my favourite bookshops, but I’ve been getting through them at a slower pace than normal, and keep wondering whether it’s too soon to re-read my Robin Hobb books again (I finished my last read-through of all 16 of them last September, having begun in early 2018).

Last weekend, I put on Sleepless in Seattle for the first time in years – my ultimate comfort watch. A few days ago, I started idly looking up prices for the DVD boxset of Fringe, which I binged on when it was on Netflix back in 2015.

The album listening parties run by Tim Burgess on Twitter have also sent me back in time by featuring old favourites that I hadn’t listened to in years (hello Lost Souls and The Hour of Bewilderbeast), prompting me to seek out more lost gems in my collection.

My head knows that I have 100+ books to read, several games that I need to finish (or even start), and a huge Netflix to-watch list. But my heart just wants to return to the things that I know I love.

It’s not just me. There have been a few surveys and articles confirming that a lot of us are turning to old cultural favourites during lockdown, as well as looking at old photos to summon up the memories of happier days. Nostalgia can have a powerful hold over people at the best of times, but its grip seems vice-like in this current strange period.

One thing I didn’t know about nostalgia is that, in the early 17th century, it was originally deemed an illness with physical symptoms that Swiss soldiers went through when they were fighting abroad and longed for the hills of their alpine home. I recently read Dolly Alderton’s memoir Everything I Know About Love, in which she touches on this when looking back at the period covered by the book:

In the run-up to my thirtieth, my twenties became my alpine dreamland. My twenties were my home, somewhere I knew and felt comfortable. In my rational mind, I was totally aware that most of it had been fraught… but I was overcome with the sickness of nostalgia.

I think my nostalgia comes from a similar place. Although I’m more used to the current situation now than I was at the beginning of lockdown, and I know full well that the pre-COVID world was far from perfect, I still want to flee from the whole thing to somewhere that I know. Whether this is a good thing or not, I’m still not sure.

I recently banned myself from Twitter and news websites for a couple of weeks because I could feel the constant stream of bad news digging into my brain and sowing the seeds of anxiety. While it was helpful to cocoon myself away from the real world for a bit, I couldn’t help but feel a different kind of anxiety that by blocking out the news and refusing to engage with everything outside of my bubble, I was being selfish – especially at a time when protests are erupting around the world to demonstrate against the murder of black people. Wasn’t I being a bad ally by not keeping up to date on everything that was happening? How could I contribute to the fight against racism when I didn’t know what was going on around me?

I sometimes feel like that about my recent trips down memory lane. What’s the point of going back in time when there are writers, directors, actors, musicians and games developers putting out new works that are more relevant to the modern era? (Although I’m quite thankful that there aren’t yet any COVID-themed novels or TV shows to plough through!). How can I hope to develop my understanding of the world when I’m not engaging with it, especially as someone who hopes to write a novel one day?

Perhaps this way of dealing with lockdown is actually good for me. Perhaps, as the rules around lockdown ease (albeit in typically chaotic fashion) and we gradually re-emerge into the new world that’s appeared over the course of this strange spring and summer, I’ll be mentally stronger to deal with whatever new events are going to come our way. We’ll see, won’t we?

Silhouettes on a hill.

25 things I miss about pre-lockdown life

  1. The pure joy of locking the front door and setting off on holiday.
  2. Making a surprised “oh!” noise when the food arrives mid-conversation at a restaurant, even though I was certainly there when I ordered it just a few minutes before.
  3. Guaranteed reading time on the commute to and from work (but not the will-it-won’t-it agony of waiting for a delayed bus, or the other people on it).
  4. The first big mouthful of a pint in a lively pub on a Friday after work.
  5. Falling into a massive Gujarati food coma as my husband drives us home from seeing my mum.
  6. The sight of Manchester city centre basking in butter-soft sunshine that particularly flatters the reddish-brown buildings there.
  7. Random office banter that distracts everyone, even the managers, from work for longer than it probably should.
  8. The curtain of calm that falls over me the moment I walk into a bookshop.
  9. Spilling some of my beer on myself in the excitement of a banging, sweaty gig.
  10. Eating all of my sweets in the cinema before the film even starts.
  11. The sight of my husband bounding up a Lakeland hill like a mountain goat while I slowly struggle along several metres behind him (yes, really).
  12. The wonderful, magical Cheese Man’s enthusiastic greeting of “Hello! ‘Ow you doing?” when we get to the front of the queue at the local market.
  13. Dissolving into hysterical drunken laughter with friends, inevitably resulting in at least two of us getting the hiccups and/or choking/coughing.
  14. Sunny lunchtimes spent reading by the Old Quad at the university, bees drowsing nearby.
  15. Wandering aimlessly up and down the aisles of shelves at the library, knowing that I could take home any book I see for free, if I wanted to.
  16. Licking melted ice cream from my hand after buying a 99 (with raspberry sauce and a Flake) on a really hot day and not eating it quickly enough.
  17. Flicking through a dog-eared inflight magazine while being too excited about my holiday to concentrate on the articles.
  18. Bumping into people I haven’t seen for years and standing on the pavement either nattering for ages or having a quick, slightly awkward catch-up.
  19. Ordering a ridiculously expensive cocktail in a bar and not regretting it in the slightest.
  20. Sitting down with a pot of tea and a huge slice of cake in a cafe after an interesting but exhausting walk around a stately home/castle/museum.
  21. Walking out of Boots/Superdrug while scrabbling in a pocket for a tissue to wipe off all the make-up I’ve tested on the back of my other hand.
  22. Writing to the soundtrack of the plinky-plonky music in the cafe above the bookshop at work.
  23. Furtive glances at other punters’ sleepy under-the-table dogs in a sunny beer garden.
  24. Neck ache from looking upwards at interesting buildings in a foreign city.
  25. Coming home after- well, just coming home, full-stop.