Upstaged! anthology out today

Prima Donna

I’m very pleased to say that Upstaged!: an anthology of women who love women in performing arts is available now, and that it contains my story Prima Donna. It’s a delightful selection of short stories published by Supposed Crimes, who specialise in F/F fiction across a variety of genres.

The ‘performing arts’ in question are many and varied – my story is (of course) about opera, while others feature panto, silent film, burlesque, plays and musicals.

The genres are many and varied, too. We have steampunk, sci-fi, romance, slice-of-life, and straight (or not-so-straight) historical. Settings range from the 1830s to the far future, from Broadway to New Helsinki. Not all the stories will be to everyone’s taste – that’s the nature of such a diverse collection – but all the same I think there is something in there for everyone.

There’s an interview with me about the inspiration for Prima Donna and about my future projects over at the publishers’ site today.

As for the book itself, here it is at Amazon.com…

… at Amazon.co.uk…

… at Kobo…

… at Smashwords…

… at Barnes & Noble

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Brief and trivial

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Nobody gave me the correct answer to the question of which novel my fictional book group was discussing in A Spoke In The Wheel.

I can’t say that I’m surprised. It was in fact North Face, which is the last novel that Mary Renault wrote before giving up on writing about straight people and moving to South Africa. The rest of this post will contain spoilers, because I feel that I probably ought to explain a little.

The unpleasant hero is Neil Langton, who spends the whole book alternately mansplaining, manpaining, and trying to persuade the unfortunate Ellen that she ought to sleep with and/or marry him for her own good.

He achieves both.

The biscuits are metaphorical – well, a simile, really, and a very odd simile it is, too.

So far he had brought her; if it seemed well to him that she should part with her virginity as a casual epilogue, after an exhausting emotional crisis, in the abrupt and flickering desire of weariness – a satisfaction as brief and trivial as the biscuit which, wakeful, one reaches from the bedside tin – then this must be the perfect, the only possible thing, and she would embrace it gladly.

Sexy, no? No.

As for the incest, I still can’t work out whether we’re meant to think the reason that Ellen wasn’t attracted to her (now deceased) childhood friend Jock is because of the Westermarck effect, or because he literally was her brother. So it actually isn’t as incestuous as the book group made it sound. Or is it?

On a less baffling note, the winners of the giveaway, as determined by Random.org, are VivieH and joannechillhouse. I will be emailing you for your addresses.

The picture, by the way, shows the north face of the Eiger as seen from the train at Kleine Scheidegg, and rather appropriately obscured by the weather.

#IndieAthon wrap-up

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Well, considering I didn’t find out about #IndieAthon until two weeks in, I didn’t do too badly…

As it happened, I’d already got two down: I’d had to spend a day in bed with a horrible cold, and The Comfortable Courtesan and Rustick Exile made for excellent, well, comfort reading. The characters are old friends now, and it was lovely to go back to the beginning of everything and remind myself how it all started.

A. M. Leibowitz‘s Anthem, from independent publisher Supposed Crimes, was my next #IndieAthon read. Leibowitz is one of the few authors who’s interested in the intersections between religious and LGBTQ identities. This one is particularly entertaining for anyone who’s ever had to stifle a snigger at the unintentional suggestiveness of much worship music.

Firebrand by Ankaret Wells was a re-read – it’s a steampunk fantasy romance. In between the first time and this I’ve read some of Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia, so was able to pick up a lot more of the allusions and appreciate the setting. Having said that, I didn’t feel that I was missing that last time around – this was more of an added bonus!

Another book that came from a small press, rather than being self-published, was R. V. Bailey’s Credentials. With some dating from before U. A. Fanthorpe’s death, and some afterwards, this collection of poetry spans all sorts of emotions and experiences. I think my favourite was Suddenly, but Hard Work has a poignant kick to it.

I finished the month with How I Broke Bath, and other stories, by The Hunter. The man behind that name died earlier in March. I met him a couple of times, not enough to say that I knew him well, but he was a good friend to people that I consider good friends. He had an ear for a pun and a knack for telling a story: both are evident in this collection of blog posts.

I’ve very much enjoyed #IndieAthon – reading, recommending, and generally hanging around on the hashtag. I hope it runs again!

Many places we don’t know

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A familiar London landmark

Here is what two thirty-something-year-olds, who have spent a lot of time in many various types of churches and who have often travelled into London by rail, sound like watching the last two episodes of Around The World With Willy Fogg:

– King’s Cross? From Liverpool?

– Westminster Cathedral? Really?

– Well, this is a Spanish programme. Maybe they’ve decided he’s Catholic.

– Why is he wearing vestments in the street?

– At least they’ve got the colour of the stole right.

– No, that’s Westminster Abbey. They’re just wrong.

You may well point out that the hero of Around The World With Willy Fogg is a lion who wears a top hat, and that’s a fair point. This is children’s television, and one might as well put the increasing price of stamps  down to the fact that Postman Pat now has a two vans, a motorbike, and a helicopter as expect logic. But sending the Liverpool trains to King’s Cross requires me to believe not only in a world where animals wear clothes, but also in one where all the northbound trains leave London from one sole station. Which would make much more sense than the real world, but there we go. Actually, thinking about it, I can’t fault Willy Fogg’s decision to avoid Euston. It’s one of my least favourite stations, ahead of Birmingham New Street and only slightly behind Gatwick Airport.

One of the other eyebrow-raising things about Willy Fogg was the way that Fogg’s acquaintances at the Reform Club seemed to know about his movements almost as soon as he does. This despite the fact that the action is set during a period of history where news cannot travel across the sea any faster than a human (or a top-hat-wearing lion) can. I can give Willy Fogg a pass on this one, but I’m less indulgent when Joseph O’Connor makes the same mistake in Star of the Sea.

We all have our own areas of expertise, our own sensitivities, our own knowns that may well be authors’ unknowns. And so, when a character is meant to know more about a particular subject than their author does, and when a reader knows more than the author, any mistakes are likely to come to the surface.

Apart from how to get to the North West and the difference between Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, I know enough about the career of Kathleen Ferrier, for example, to know that she was singing the role of Orpheus when she broke her leg on stage, not Eurydice, as Rose Heiney assumes in The Days of Judy B.. And that wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that it’s Judy B.’s singing teacher, who really ought to know better, who says that. I know enough about the Church of England to know that it’s unlikely that a bishop would wear a ‘soutane’ to a secular function, as Kate Lace assumes in The Chalet Girl, and very unlikely that he’d call it that.

I know enough to know that I’ve almost certainly missed something myself.

And so, as I wait for the edits to come in on A Spoke In The Wheel, I am nervous. I am nervous about what I may have got wrong about professional cycling and about disability benefits and about how flood defences work. I am nervous about what I may have got wrong about the road to Preston and about doping and about working for a charity. I am nervous about what other people will see that I cannot.

Where possible, I have asked people who know more about those things than I do to read the manuscript and advise me, but I know that it’s inevitable that something is still going to slip through the gaps. I can only hope that it’s not going to be something too embarrassing.

 

Down the rabbit hole: reading in 2017

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I’ve read some great books this year. In fact, I can’t remember enjoying a year’s reading so much since I was a teenager. I started out with a whole lot of comfort reading to get me through the New Year virus and the associated sleepless nights (fanfic; the Richard Hannay series), and… kept on with the comfort reading. No, not necessarily comfort reading. Some of it was distinctly uncomfortable. But this year I’ve read far more things just because I wanted to read them.

I picked things up because they were old favourites that I wanted to revisit (White Boots), or because I’d heard of them years ago and had always meant to get around to reading them (The Towers of Trebizond), or because someone gave them to me (A Good Hiding), or because someone mentioned them in passing on something totally unrelated and I liked the sound of them (The Hare with Amber Eyes). I read some new things by authors whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past (Trouble for Lucia and Meet Me at Beachcomber Bay), and I experimented with some new authors (Four Steps).

This year I read thrillers (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) and mysteries (The China Governess). I read fanfic (Blackbird). I read memoir (The World of Cycling According to G) and biography (though I’ve yet to reach the end of the giant Rudolf Nureyev one). I read chicklit (To the Moon and Back). I read literary criticism (Literary Allusion in Harry Potter). I read children’s books (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass). I read non-fiction. I read poetry (Listen to the Green; Four Quartets; Measured Extravagance).

I read fewer things for motives of self-improvement (La Dame aux Camélias). I read a couple of things just to get them off my shelves (Mulligan and The Widow). Next year I’d like to get more things off my shelves without reading them.

I followed rabbit holes and felt less guilty about enjoying what I read (pretty much everything, but particularly the Victorian and early twentieth century British stuff). I think I’ll write more about that tomorrow. The only book that I deliberately abandoned was Snuff – to my mind it’s the point in the Discworld series where the quality takes an obvious and understandable turn for the worse, and I just couldn’t bear to keep going with it. I may also give up on Will Grayson, Will Grayson before the year’s out, because I’m finding the chapters without capitalisation rather an effort to read.

Last year I decided not to bother recording my reactions to books, and just wrote down what I actually finished. This strategy continued to work this year, and I find that the memorable ones are memorable and the rest of them aren’t, and my reactions don’t make much difference, really. And then of course there are the books that are enjoyable but not memorable, and looking back at previous years’ records I can’t actually tell the difference between those and the books that I was pretending to enjoy because I thought I should.

I’ve finished sixty-six books so far, and will probably get a couple more in before the end of 2017. (Last year I managed seventy-eight, but more of those were things that I Felt I Ought To Read, either for self-improvement reasons or because I’d got them free and felt I should get my money’s worth… yeah.) Most of my reading time was on the train, with a little bit at lunchtimes or bedtimes.

I think this year I’ve come to understand that I’m not reading for anybody else – not for friends, not for colleagues, not for my own readers or even for my future self. I’m reading for me, now.

It’s fun.

No, it *is* about enjoying it

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A very grainy photo of some books I’ve enjoyed. You might not enjoy these. That’s fine!

On Thursday I took part in a workshop for union learning reps, exploring ways of promoting reading and writing for pleasure in the workplace. One of the initiatives that they work with is the Reading Ahead challenge – members are encouraged to choose six reads (which could be anything from a haiku to War and Peace) and write a brief review of each of them. The idea is to make reading less off-putting, to demonstrate that it’s for everybody.

One of the ULRs told a story about someone who had managed to put one of her recruits right off joining in the challenge.

‘And what are you reading at the moment?’ he’d asked. She’d told him, had said, a little apologetically, that maybe it wasn’t the most intellectual thing in the world, but she was enjoying it.

‘But it’s not about enjoying it, is it?’ he said. ‘It’s about challenging yourself, learning something new.’

That person was wrong. WRONG.

It is about enjoying it.

I’m going to write that bigger:

It *is* about enjoying it

And if the person who said that it isn’t was the person I think it was, I’m going to tell him so when I next see him.

This person is also wrong, or, at least, missing the point spectacularly. If we try to make people read because it is good for them, they will never enjoy reading. It’s like eating enough vegetables, or getting enough exercise: if you do it because you think you should, you’re constantly fighting with yourself and sooner or later you give up because you just hate yourself so much for making yourself do it.

The world is full of things that we read because we have to. Bills. Textbooks. Contracts. Procedures. They are not fun. Why should we extend that misery to the rest of our reading life?

The more people read for fun – read because they genuinely enjoy it, because they would rather be reading than doing something else – the easier they will find it when they come to reading what’s dull, or difficult, but essential.

Can we enjoy reading challenging material? Of course we can. Personally, I have just downloaded Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-Vingt Jours – yes, in French – which is going to be a challenge, and also something that I will enjoy. As one of my friends says, ’embrace the power of AND’. We can also keep reading things that we’re not currently enjoying in the hopes that we will enjoy them eventually.

But to deliberately seek out things to read that we don’t expect to enjoy… no. No, thank you.

In much the same way as one gets tired of doughnuts very quickly if one eats nothing but doughnuts, it’s unlikely that people will read nothing but [that book you’re thinking of] and [that other book you’re thinking of]. And really, if they did, would that be such a problem?

The more we read – the more we read for pure pleasure – the more we will find our horizons expanding and our tastes diversifying. If we just let people read what they want to read, and keep reading what they want to read, they’ll probably end up reading something that comes up to the exacting standards of the person who terrorised that poor potential Reading Ahead challenge participant.

But that’s not the point. Enjoyment comes first. Life is too short to drag ourselves through things we’re not enjoying just because somebody thinks they’re good for us.

It is about enjoying it. In fact, enjoying it is the most important thing.

Good reasons to read a book

  1. To see what the fuss is about
  2. You loved it last time around
  3. You loved that other book by the same author
  4. It’s very good
  5. The plot has got you hooked
  6. It’s so bad it’s funny

Good reasons for finishing a book you’re not enjoying

  1. It’s a requirement for your course
  2. You’ve got into it now
  3. You want to see if it gets better
  4. You want to see how bad it can possibly get

Good reasons not to read a book

  1. It sounds just like that other book you hated
  2. It sounds fine, just not very interesting
  3. Somebody on the internet said it wasn’t very good
  4. You would rather read a different book
  5. The author was rude to or about somebody like you on Twitter
  6. Life’s too short

Good reasons to abandon a book

  1. You don’t feel like finishing this book

There are many further variations. Add your own in comments!