Summer Reads (1): Nonfiction.

Somewhere in the dim and distant past of late July/early August, we managed to get away for three whole glorious weeks in Tenby. After a hectic few months editing 3 books and doing 2 exams while trying to hold down a full time job, it was a total joy to sit and do nothing much except read. I’ve been meaning to write up the results ever since but the minute I got back it feels like I’ve not stopped till this weekend. So,  time to make the most of the rare moment of calm and let you know my thoughts on my non-fiction choices…

linescapes

Linescapes. Hugh Warwick.

I will put it out there straightaway, that Hugh is a good friend of mine, so of course I always want his books to do well. But I will also say that I absolutely love his passion for the environment (particularly all things hedgehog) and he is a brilliant writer.  I’m a former student of Biology, and Hugh’s work not only shows me what my life might have been like if I’d been any good as a scientist, but it always rekindles my enthusiasm for the subject.

‘Linescapes’ is no exception. This is a gorgeous book, celebrating the beauty of our British landscape and lamenting the threats it is under. Hugh’s approach, to investigate the lines (or ‘linescapes’) that criss-cross our land, is a fresh and innovative one. He takes the reader on a fascinating journey along hedges, walls, hollow ways,  canals, railways and motors, as he walks with local environmentalists who explain how human lines can both hinder and help wildlife. While it is a plea to halt the ongoing fragmentation of our natural habitat, it also offers a great deal of hope. To know that wildlife can be found even in the most challenging circumstances (demonstrated by the discovery of otter spraint in an urban canal under a busy A road) and that the highways and railways have teams of passionate naturalists working hard to manage their estates, is very heartening indeed.  A book guaranteed to make you want to search out your local linescapes to ferret out and protect the wildlife you find there.

 

2. Swell: A waterbiography. Jenny Landreth.swell

I started following Jenny Landreth on twitter a few years ago, when I found out about her blog Swimming Round London. Since then we’ve had many interesting conversations on a wide range of topics, but I’ve always remained interested in her swimming stories, so, of course, ‘Swell’ was on my birthday present list. And what a ‘swell’ present it was.

The minute I saw the exuberant cover of women jumping into a lido, I knew I’d enjoy this. And I did. Landreth is a witty and warm writer, who weaves her own personal transformation from unsporty child to grown up open air water swimmer, with the history of women’s swimming in Britain.  As someone who was also put off sport as a teenager, I totally identified with her personal journey, and remain in awe of her achievements as a long distance swimmer. She has also pulled together a fascinating account of how women were gradually allowed a place in the water, and pieced together the stories of the awesome pioneers who demonstrated their ability to be just as good as the men. Like ‘Linescapes’ this is a joyous, uplifting book which will have you diving into the water the minute you put it down.

3.  A Short History of England. Simon Jenkins.

jenkins

A Short History of England was one of my husband’s book choices, and since the sections he kept reading out loud were interesting, I picked it up the minute he was done.  I’ve got a good grasp of British history, but had forgotten a lot, so this well written and informative book was helpful in filling up the gaps.  The only quibble I had was that it was so short, it did rather race through bits that I’d have liked to linger on. Nonetheless, if you want to brush up on your English history this is a good start.

 

 

Next up,  old favourites…

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Reclaiming The Common Good

Long term readers of this blog will be aware that I am a fiction writer, but in recent years I have also been developing my non-fiction. I am delighted to announce that Darton Longmann and Todd have just published ‘Reclaiming the Common Good’ an essay collection that I have collated and edited.

The collection was one of the keynote books at last week’s Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival. It explores what part Christians can play in building a better future of hope, peace, equality and justice.

 


Reclaiming the Common Good

After decades of political consensus, we are entering a time in which everything about the way we live today, and about how our society and communities are structured, is up for discussion. Many people are feeling empowered to ask:

 

What kind of world do we want to live in? One that works for a few, or one that works for the common good?

 

What part can Christians play in building a future of hope, peace, equality and justice?

 

Reclaiming the Common Good is a collection of essays which consider these themes. Beginning with an explanation of the history and meaning of the term ‘common good’, it explores how the sense of working for this ideal has been lost. Focussing, biblically, on issues such as welfare, austerity, migration, environment, peace and justice, it provides a compellingly fresh and insightful analysis on the state of the UK and the world today, and offers a realistic vision of how it could be better. This vision is rooted in the idea of a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem, as suggested in the book of Revelation.

I have two essays in the collection, the others by a wonderful group of writers: contributors are: Dr Patrick Riordan SJ, John Moffatt SJ, Simon Barrow, Bernadette Meaden, Dr Simon Duffy, Rev. Vaughan Jones, Savitri Hensman , Ellen Teague, Edward P. Echlin, Henrietta Cullinan, Susan Clarkson and Rev. Dr Simon Woodman.

You can order it here.

We are holding a London launch of the book at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 235 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8EP on 20th September at 6.30pm. Tickets are free. All welcome. You can book via Eventbrite. Hope to see you there!

 

Indie Debut – Three Dreams in the Key of G by Marc Nash

Though we’ve never met in person, Marc Nash and I have been online friends since we met through the #Fridayflash community. I have enjoyed his flash fictions stories for years as they are always clever, original, challenging, and intriguing. In the years since Marc has been busy, self publishing several novels and flash fiction collections, and having had one collection published by Gumbo Press.  I was delighted to discover recently that his latest novel Three Dreams in the Key of G here.

Marc was one of the first people to give me a spot to publicise Echo Hall, so it gives me great pleasure to return the favour and welcome him here. Three Dreams in the Key of G sounds typical of his inventive and surprising fiction, and I am can’t wait to get hold of a copy.

Over to you Marc…MN

 

“Three Dreams In The Key of G” is about motherhood and child development, in a most hostile environment, that of sectarian divided Northern Ireland. Mothers have to straddle a near impossible tightrope, between keeping their children shielded from the horrors, while also knowing they must not break rank and remain loyal to which ever side of the religious divide they find themselves born into. With the 1999 Peace Agreement there was great hope for the future, but it also entailed the men of violence being released from the prison H-Blocks or demobbed from the paramilitary units and returning to the domestic realm. And now in 2017 we see the Democratic Unionist Party with their reactionary politics brought (and bought) into alliance with the Conservative government in Westminster, while devolved government in Northern Ireland teeters on collapse at the Stormont Parliament.

 

The book also takes a wider view of the Nature V Nurture debate. Can there be any useful division between the two, if you not only get your parents’ genes, but you get their parenting as well? And what happens in a situation such as Northern Ireland where the environment of your upbringing is so tightly controlled, that Nurture too may as well be hard wired.

 

The human genome project began in 1990 and completed in 2003, maps every one of our human genes as we look to unlock the secrets of our decay and mortality. Only today American doctors were reporting that they genetically spliced genes in an embryo to correct a hereditary mutation that caused fatal heart disease. But humans being what we are, we don’t just stop at this, we also go off in fanciful searches for the ‘genius’ gene, or the ‘gay’ gene. The protestors shouting “Justice for Charlie” outside the law courts in the recent tragic case of Charlie Gard born with mitochondrial DNA damage, might be better shaking their placards at God or the blind drive and workings of microbiology which leads to genetic mutations and heart-breaking illnesses. But then we as a species ought to inquire into what mortality means to us and therefore what such insight can feed into how we live our lives. The human genome on the dissection tables between 1990-2003 is given a voice in the novel, protesting the invasion of its integrity, while taunting the inquiring scientists that they will never unravel its mystery and sublime structure, which means we will never truly know ourselves.

 

Throw in a Waco-like siege, as the FBI, ATF and DEA seem to have got the wrong end of the stick when they surround a battered women’s shelter in Florida and you have three female voices, all in a state of siege, all fighting to find their own language to resist their besiegers. A book that asks big questions about our species, our inheritance passed on to our children and as today’s events show, one that never goes out of date.

 

Plug of the Month – The Iron Chariot by Stein Riverton, translated by Lucy Moffatt

 

This is a bit late, because ‘The Iron Chariot’ by Stein Riverton and translated by my clever and talented big sister, Lucy Moffatt, has been out for several weeks now. I’m pleased to say that it’s doing well in the Kindle Scandinavian Crime Charts, so this  plug can’t hurt.

‘The Iron Chariot’ was written a hundred years ago and is considered by most to be the original Norwegian crime novel. In  a remote Norwegian community, the locals believe the sound of the mysterious iron chariot presages death. The book opens with the discovery of a body just after it has been heard in the village. The mystery deepens when, after the chariot is heard a second time, another body is found, but this time it is the corpse of a man who died years earlier. As the unnamed narrator begins to be drawn into the investigation, he becomes more and more unsettled by the eerie goings on.

This is a spooky and blackly funny book with a great detective, Asbjorn Krag, whose apparent eccentricities hide a razor sharp mind.  Lucy’s translation is beautiful, both capturing the spirit of the time and setting, and building the brooding atmosphere that makes the novel so interesting. Translation is a very fine art that can make or break a novel, and Lucy’s does Riverton proud.

‘The Iron Chariot’ is published as an ebook by Abandoned Bookshop, the new publisher that specialises in bringing long forgotten masterpieces back into our lives.  It was co-founded by the wonderful Scott Pack, who is also my editor at Unbound, so that’s another good reason to plug it. Please do go and check it out, and take a look at other  Abandoned Bookshop titles too. You won’t regret it.

Unbound Debuts – (1) Shona Kinsella

shona

A lovely thing about being part of the Unbound gang has been getting to know a lot of authors over the past year, who like me, have crowdfunded their debut novel. We’ve all kept each other going through the highs and lows and celebrated as each book reaches 100% funding.  And as they move from production to publication, I will be using this blog to introduce some my fellow authors to you.

First up is Shona Kinsella, whose fantasy novel ‘Ashael Rising’ was published last week.   ‘Ashael Rising’ is a fantasy novel and the first in the Kaladene series. It tells the story of Ashael, a hunter gatherer on the world of Kaladene, who may be the key to keeping her people safe from the invading Zanthar.  It looks great, and I like the fact it is set in a world of gender equality, and both men and women are able to behave as they wish rather than according to stereotypes. And as always Unbound have created a beautiful cover…

ashael-rising-cover

In the last year Shona has not only successfully funded the book, and got it to publication, but she has also recently given birth again. Congratulations Shona! And her great blog post describes why it is so important to ensure her female characters are realistic.  

Writing Female Protagonists

by Shona Kinsella

 

I have been reading fantasy novels for as long as I’ve been able to read and in the vast majority of those novels, the protagonist was male. This is actually a pattern that is true for all genres that I read – note that I don’t tend to read romance, which has a much higher occurrence of female protagonists.

In Ashael Rising, I did not set out to write a female protagonist because of this – the book is based on a dream and Ashael is very loosely based on the role that I played in the dream and so she is female because I am female. However, it occurred to me after I had started that I had the opportunity to do something different. With a few notable exceptions, the women I have encountered in fantasy novels tend to come in broad stereotypes – the damsel in distress and the warrior in a dress being the most common in my experience.

I knew that I wanted to write a real woman. Ashael is strong because she knows the right thing to do and does it, not because she can wield a weapon. There is romance in her life but she is complete without it and it is not her first priority. She does not wait for a man to save her but is perfectly capable of saving herself. Like so many women, she gives to the point of self-sacrifice but she does this from a place of love, not out of a lack of self-worth.

I realised that one character, one woman, would make no difference if she was surrounded only by men. Ashael Rising has several significant female characters. Bhearra, Ashael’s mentor, is perhaps my favourite. She is the oldest person in the community – so old that she has lost track of her age. The healer and spiritual leader of the community, she is vibrant and tireless, rising before dawn and working long after many others have settled down for the night. Long widowed, she has an occasional lover. Although she has her flaws, which I can’t say much about, Bhearra is the type of woman I aspire to be.

Rana, Ashael’s best friend, is co-leader of the community with her mate, Joren. Rana has a nurturing soul and mothers everyone, cooking for others and making sure they are well-clothed. She is also a skilled hunter, often providing meat for them all. She supports the weight of her community and makes sure to know what’s happening in the lives of the people she cares for.

Alayne, close friend of Ashael and Rana, is heavily pregnant when we meet her but that doesn’t stop her flirting with Iwan. After her son is born, she happily co-parents with her mate, Gethyn, while still joining hunting and foraging groups. Alayne is brave, volunteering for a task that could result in her death.

Then there are the females of other races that we are only introduced to in Ashael Rising. Merelle of the Zanthar, a scheming manipulator and adulterer, happy to play every political game available to her in order to gain power.

Tchalikila of the Agnikant, a sorceress who knows more about Ashael’s past than our heroine does herself.

One of the things that was very important to me in writing these women was that they owned their bodies and their sexuality. For too long, women have been portrayed as play things for men to enjoy. Now, I do not actually have any sex scenes in the book but there are clear references to that facet of human relationships. Bhearra has a “friend with benefits”, Rana is happily mated in every way and Merelle is aggressive, taking what she wants. As for Ashael, well *spoilers*.

Having created these strong, rounded women, I needed to give them a society that they could thrive in, one built around respect and equality of all people, a utopia of sorts. That was more difficult than I expected. I found myself slipping into the familiar – having a man dismiss something as female intuition, defaulting to having women carry out all of the caring duties and food preparation etc. It took a conscious effort to remove these things. In doing so, I thought about the boxes that we shove men into and how restrictive traditional gender roles are for them too.

I started to think about how men are so often portrayed as stoic, unemotional, power hungry. Writing characters like that would be no fairer to men than the damsel-in-distress is to women. I started to think about how masculine stereotypes can be harmful to men and what I might be able to do to counter those stereotypes.

Here, in the UK, men are often put under pressure to show no emotion, to ‘man up’ and pretend that they do not have feelings so I decided to show the men in my book in all their emotional glory. Iwan experiences fear both for himself and for his mother. We also get to see him falling in love. Joren shares his doubts with Rana, admitting that he does not know how to lead the community through this crisis. He gratefully accepts her support. Colm worries about his mate and misses her when he they are separated.

What began as an intention to write realistic, well-rounded female characters led to an exploration of gender, how it is shaped and expressed in our society and how it could be in a culture where people are encouraged to be the truest version of themselves regardless of their gender. I hope that in this book I have been created characters capable of standing as role models for both young women and young men.

 

Great post. Thanks very much Shona!

You can order Ashael Rising via Unbound or Amazon.

Christmas round up!

Merry Christmas everyone!

Just to remind you the list of great books you could get for Christmas for those last minute shoppers among you, and all those wonderful Unbound books you can pledge to as well!

So here you go:

Julia Williams ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’

Anne Booth   ‘The Christmas Fairy’, ‘Lucy’s Winter Rescue’, ‘Refuge’

Amanda Saint ‘As If I Were A River’

Rachel Crowther ‘The Things You Do For Love’

Jackie Buxton ‘Glass Houses’ and ‘Tea and Chemo’

Antonia Honeywell ‘The Ship’

Yusuf Toropov ‘Jihadi: A Love Story’

And if you’ve run out of time to shop but are still looking for unusual gifts, you can back  Unbound books by Emma Southon,  Paul Holbrook, Alice Jolly, more details here and by Tim Atkinson, Simon Key and Tim West and Tabatha Stirling, more details here.

I believe in the power of stories and all of the above are fabulous storytellers, so please do make their Christmas and buy or back their books today!

Back these books (2)

A continuation of my list of Unbound books for you to back this Christmas…

4. The Glorious Dead by Tim Atkinson

This is another novel dealing with the aftermath of war, but  one that has a very different take from mine. The book is a fictional account of a true story – about the soldiers who remained in France at the end of World War 1 to re-bury the war dead. I’d never heard of this before, so can’t wait to read it and find out more.

5. Open A Bookshop, What Could Possibly Go Wrong? by Simon Key and Tim West.

I love indie bookstores, and though I’ve never been to Big Green Books, I’ve been a fan ever since I learnt of their existence.Additionally they’re based in Wood Green near where I grew up and they have an excellent twitter account, so what’s not to love about the story of how they came into being?

6. Blood on the Banana Leaf by Tabatha Stirling.

Set in Singapore, Blood on the Banana Leaf tells the stories of four different women and explores the effects of loss, madness, violence and hope in their lives. This looks like a fascinating insight into a society I know very little about, and judging by the extract another great read from Unbound.