Creative work might not make big bucks, but we must value it. by @sianushka

Cross-posted from: Sian and Crooked Rib
Originally published: 31.05.16
So says the Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University in Belfast, in response to how they are managing budget cuts by amalgamating courses such as anthropology and sociology into wider subjects of study, so that instead of 21-year-olds passionate about their specialism, we have instead: 
 
Now, I’m not saying that supporting 21-year-olds to understand the job market and how they can take their place within it is a bad thing. I could have probably done with some of that. 
 
But what I am saying is that when you have the head of a university basically denigrating the joy and wonder that humanities research can offer an undergraduate student, encouraging them to take on post-grad study, potentially becoming a world specialist in their field and inspiring others behind them – well, something has gone very, very wrong in the way we think about the value of education and specifically university education.  


Read more Creative work might not make big bucks, but we must value it. by @sianushka

Does Kindness Kill Vision?

Cross-posted from: Halo Lit Mag
Originally published: 18.04.16

Here at Halo Towers (yes, we have an actual castle), we’ve been talking a lot about kindness recently. We figured it was worth sharing some of those thoughts on here, so they’re down in writing and you know what to expect from us if you ever submit your work to Halo.

NEWSFLASH: Creative writing is hard. NEWSFLASH 2: Submitting your writing is even harder because you’re making yourself vulnerable—you’ve not only produced something that you think is good, you’re sending it to someone else in the hope that they’ll think that it’s good as well. You’re asking to be judged, by a stranger, on something you’ve put your heart into. It takes guts.

I decided to found Halo – which is a literary mag just for women’s short fiction – because I wanted women writers to have an opportunity to be heard. But, women are notoriously reluctant to submit their work anywhere – often, we’re basically convinced we suck. In order to encourage women to come forward, I knew there needed to be a level of kindness and openness in our interactions and online content.


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Sara Barnard’s Beautiful Broken Things – A review by @sianushka

Cross-posted from: Sian and Crooked Rib
Originally published: 10.01.16

UnknownI’ve never really read YA, not even when I was a YA myself. Except A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian, proving there is always an exception to any rule.

So it was a real treat for my first proper YA experience to be the fantastic Beautiful Broken Things by my very clever friend Sara Barnard, published by Macmillan.

There’s the disclosure: Sara is a friend of mine but I would be writing the following glowing review whether I knew her or not. Because this book merits it.

The novel is told in the voice of Caddy, a teenager living in Brighton. Like most teens, she’s concerned with schoolwork, exams, parents and, of course, boys. But, in a refreshing twist from a lot of fiction aimed at teenage girls, boys are not the primary pre-occupation of this book. Female friendship is.

Caddy’s best friend is Rosie. Although they don’t attend the same school, the pair are inseparable – doing everything together and calling or texting each other every evening to update on the day’s events. However, when the beautiful, cool and mysterious Suzanne starts at Rosie’s school, Caddy is worried that their close bond is under threat.


Read more Sara Barnard’s Beautiful Broken Things – A review by @sianushka

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Cross-posted from: Adventures in Biography
Originally published: 08.11.15

salt-creekIn 1855 the well-to-do Finch family falls on hard times and is forced live and farm in the Coorong, on the remote southeast coast of South Australia.  Cue struggles with the landscape and clashes with the local Ngarrindjeri people.  But first-time novelist Lucy Treloar subverts the typical white Australian pioneer story in interesting and complex ways.  Nothing in this fascinating and beautifully written story turns out as expected.

Papa Finch is an entrepreneur always eyeing off the next big opportunity but the family’s ramshackle homestead on the Coorong is a blow to everyone’s pride.  His four teenage boys are forced to forfeit their education to work on the run.  Mama, grieving for two younger children who died just before the family left Adelaide, is not quite herself and the responsibility for running the household falls to the eldest daughter, fifteen year old Hettie.
Read more Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Who’s Afraid of the Dark

Cross-posted from: Abigail Rieley
Originally published: 29.10.15

A suitably blasted heath - or rainy cemetary

I’ve always loved reading ghost stories at this time of year. Nothing else seems to hit quite the same spot the wind is roaring like a lost soul outside and the rain is battering against the windows in truly biblical fashion. As the nights draw in there’s always that primeval part of us that draws closer to the fire but is mindful of the fury outside. This is something that writers have always understood and those writing before homes were lit with the flick of a switch understood it by far the best. My favourite ghost stories always seem to date from the mid-19th to early 20th century, when the gothic imagination was at its height. I grew up reading M.R. James and E.F. Benson, first discovered in the volumes that made up part of my dad’s Everyman Library – hundreds of uniform cloth covered books with matching paper jackets that lived in special glass fronted bookcases in the dining room.
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Ali Smith, Public Library and what libraries mean to me

Cross-posted from: Sian and Crooked Rib
Originally published: 23.11.15

I’m lucky enough to be reviewing Ali Smith’s new short story collection, Public Library, for Open Democracy 50:50. So watch this space, I’ll post the link once it’s filed and live.

However, the process of reading and reviewing the book made me think about my own relationship with libraries. And so I thought I would post here something I wrote earlier in the year for Bristol 24/7 because as far as I can tell, they deleted all the articles I wrote for them…

So, here you go:

The Power of Libraries
Read more Ali Smith, Public Library and what libraries mean to me

Mannequin

Cross-posted from: She Means Well But ...
Originally published: 17.07.15

Barbara Millicent Roberts wriggled her toes into her high heels, smoothed her pencil skirt over her slim hips and leaned into the hallway mirror to reapply her lipstick. Squinting at her reflection, she smoothed an arched eyebrow and gave a self-satisfied smile.

“Not bad for an old gal,” she murmured in a sassy but still respectable mid-Western drawl.

Though she’d never confess her age or give in to the demands for comfort her body made as the years went by, she couldn’t help thinking back to her New York debut as a teen model back in 1959. What a knock-out she’d been, with her bouffant hair, chevron striped bathing suite and high heeled mules for poolside elegance. She still was, she noted with pride. No sensible shoes or baggy trouser suits for her, thank you very much.
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Norah Lofts and why you should read her by @KatharineEdgar

(Cross-posted from Katharine Edgar)

I had a massive Norah Lofts binge over Christmas. Lofts is a deeply unfashionable writer who people in the know keep saying should be rediscovered. Alison Weir has been plugging away at it, and, brilliantly, was instrumental in getting some Lofts books back into print, while the availability of ebooks and the possibility of finding out-of-print books on ABE or Amazon means that there’s never been a better time to discover her.

Lofts was born in Norfolk, in 1904. She came from a farming family, something which had a lasting influence on her writing, as you will see, but worked as a history teacher before she turned to writing full time. Over a long and busy career she wrote more than 60 books, mostly historical, but with a good handful of excellent psychological thrillers too (the Hammer horror film The Witches was based on one). The Oxford Book of Historical Stories calls her ‘one of the undisputed queens of historical romance.’

I first came across Norah Lofts at thirteen, when I was making my first forays into historical re-enactment and was advised by the organiser to read Lofts for her incomparable grasp of historical detail, and because many of her books are set in Suffolk, where the Tudor house we were re-creating, was. Her ability to handle historical detail, work it effortlessly into a story and endow it with great emotional charge, is certainly second to none. I came to Lofts for the research. But I stayed for the storytelling. How’s this for an opening?

‘At the age of seven I was a skillful pickpocket. I could also sew neatly, write a tolerable hand, make a curtsey and a correct introduction, dance a little and play simple tunes on the harpsichord.’

It’s the start of ‘Felicity Hatton’s Tale,’ the first story in the third book of her fabulous Old Vine trilogy. Lofts had a particular liking for taking a house and tracing its residents through history. Other people have done this with towns (notably Edward Rutherfurd, in SarumLondon and others) but no-one has done it as convincingly as Lofts.

The house at Old Vine is built by Martin Reed, a runaway serf at the turn of the fifteenth century, who takes his own destiny into his hands after his lord refuses him permission to marry the girl he loves. The rest of the first book, The Town House, takes place over Martin’s lifetime. But the fabulous thing Lofts does is to shift viewpoint with each chapter, to the old woman who comes to look after him, then his daughter-in-law, Anne, daughter of an impoverished knightly family who marries beneath her, then his grand-daughter Maud, then his secretary. They’re all such different people, in motivation, life-experience and style of thinking, and the fresh perspectives allow us to see the characters we have come to know intimately, as other people see them. Thus we see them change and grow old – young, hopeful, Martin keeping stoically on, Anne who we first knew as a teenager becoming bitter, alcoholic and cruel.

The second book in the trilogy takes us through the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and the third book from Georgian times to the modern day, when the house is no longer lived in by Martin’s descendants. Throughout the series there are incredible stories, and, I should add, incredible TEENAGE stories. Ethelreda Benedict, forced out of the island home she shared with her father when it was flooded by the draining of the Fens. Felicity Hatton, who has to survive in Georgian London after her father’s gambling addiction has beggared her family. And (perhaps my favourite), the dreadful Anne, who calculates that marrying the woolmaster’s son and living in a town house with glass windows might be a come-down for her family but it will lead to a far more comfortable life for herself than staying in her parents’ isolated hall forever unable to afford the dowry for a respectable match.

Like Alison Weir, I rate the House trilogy the most highly, but the prolific Lofts produced many more books worth reading. Broadly speaking, her historical fiction falls into two categories – historical biography, and Suffolk books. The historical biography is not confined to England – there is a splendid book, Crown of Aloes, about Isabella of Spain – and includes one of the most sensitive fictions written about Anne Boleyn, The Concubine.

The Suffolk books, which include the House trilogy, all take place in or around a fictional town called Baildon, which is similar to (though not identical with) Bury St Edmunds. One of the joys of being a hardcore Norah Lofts fan is the way places and families recur across the books, so the fictional world becomes deeper and richer than anything that could be achieved in one book alone. We know which family has a streak of gambling addiction, which breeds the best horses, which local in is best and who built the Assembly rooms. One particular strength of Lofts as a writer, in a genre which can often focus on the rarefied and privileged lives of the wealthy, is that she is as interested in the lives of the ordinary people as those of kings or queens. Even her Anne Boleyn book is told from the viewpoint of a serving maid. Lofts’ farming background comes into this in a big way, writing as she is about a rural country through centuries when most people were closely tied to the land. Martin Reed first meets Anne Blanchfleur when he is visiting his sheep, and her mother lets him heat his tar pot on their fire. Lofts understand the economics of farming: what it means to have a farm of a certain size, or to carry out the work yourself (as another knight’s child, Henry Tallboys, does in the Knight’s Acre trilogy).

There is another sense, too, in which Norah Lofts’ books are realistic, and it is one of the things I like most about her work. Despite her designation as ‘historical romance’, which would conjure up images of happy endings, for Lofts the world is a brutal, unfair place. Good deeds go unrewarded, and, often to a very disturbing extent, bad ones unpunished. Murders are regularly concealed, and criminals live on benefiting from their crimes. This lack of idealising makes her world feel very real. When I used to borrow Norah Lofts books from my local library, their spines would be stickered, seemingly at random, with either a black castle to designate ‘historical fiction’ or a pink heart with a crown on top for historical romance. I wonder how many readers picked them up expecting to be transported to a delicious tale of swooning damsels, only to find they had been sucked into a gritty story of murder and medieval farming practices. Sometimes there is supernatural, and there is often evil – the Gad’s Hall books involve Victorian girls and devil worship – but the down-to-earth nature of her style adds to the plausibility and creepiness, as, for example, in the one I have just finished, The Devil’s Own (also called The Witches, Catch As Catch Can and The Little Wax Doll), published under the name of Peter Curtis, in which the prim heroine is horrified by the sight of the unattractive bodies of her middle-aged neighbours as they dance naked at the Halloween meeting of their coven.

So, where to start with Norah Lofts? To begin with, she did write two books specifically for teenagers, both based on characters from the Old Vine trilogy, Rupert Hatton’s Tale and Maude Reed’s Tale. I would recommend these to younger readers, but really these date to a time before Young Adult fiction had reached the no holds barred place it is in today. Older teens will be perfectly comfortable reading her adult books (and their parents/teachers should be happy with most of them too – if delicate you might want to give the Peter Curtis ones a miss, and The Claw should probably have an advisory sticker but mostly there’s nothing more shocking than you will find in Jacqueline Wilson). The Old Vine books are a good place to start, as is Bless This House, which uses the same ‘house through history’ technique but in a single volume. The first Knight’s Acre book is eventful, and interest in the characters will probably carry you through the second two, even if they are a bit heavy on the farming. Of the biographical books, I have already mentioned The Concubine, and The King’s Pleasure is a sympathetic portrait of Katherine of Aragon, and Crown of Aloes a fascinating book about Isabella of Spain. For those who like their history earlier, The Lute Player is about Richard the Lionheart, or, earlier still, Esther fictionalises an Old Testament book. Lofts is equally comfortable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and The Lost Queen is a moving book about George III’s younger sister. Goodreads has plentiful reviews, and there is a thriving group there for the hardest of hardcore fans – a group which, I suspect, is destined to grow and grow as a new generation of readers discover the Queen Of Historical Romance. Or rather, Of Gritty, Dark, Agricultural Histfic With Lots And Lots Of Murders….

 

Katharine Edgar: is a Yorkshire-based feminist who writes young adult fiction, including the forthcoming Five Wounds. She blogs about her historical fiction writing: Tudor history, women’s history, crafts and writing.

The Promise (Belly Button) Ring at Positive & Promise: The Memories and Musings of a Neurotic Bookworm

(Cross-posted from Positive and Promise: The Memories and Musings of a Neurotic Bookworm)

Slouching towards the end of my first semester of college, deadlines nipping at my heels, I decided to get my belly button pierced. It was a decision solidified over the course of a few conversations with my best friend from high school. Until this point, we both had avoided body modifications, even ones as noncommittal as piercings. I had gotten my ears pierced years ago, when I was eight and finally, finally had secured my mother’s consent. I celebrated the rite of passage by nearly kicking the pregnant sales associate at Claire’s in the stomach, propelled by last minute nerves. Since that near-fiasco, I had abstained from further body piercing endeavors.

But, with the exchange of a few feverish emails, charged with the intoxicating awareness that our parents would wholeheartedly disapprove, my friend and I devised a plot to be carried out upon our winter break reunion. The details of the plot were as follows: My friend picked me up to go to dinner – OR SO OUR PARENTS THOUGHT. Instead, deviants that we were, we went to the piercing parlor! To get our belly buttons pierced! And then we went to dinner at a nice Mediterranean restaurant and were home by midnight curfew. I managed to conceal my sordid, body-altering shenanigans from my parents for roughly twelve hours, eventually bursting at the seams to announce my rebellion. I had undergone the needle for the sake of sexy! I could not fathom waiting another six months until summer, when I would inevitably broadcast the news with a bared midriff.

I’ve always possessed an appreciation for the ridiculous, and, as I stood in that oceanfront piercing parlor, awaiting puncture, I knew I must have seemed precisely that. Despite my efforts to appear blasé, to sign the release forms with cool disaffection, the tatted up, variously pierced employees saw right through the charade. Certainly I was nervous about the actual piercing process. It struck me as intimidatingly surgical, with the lean-to enswathed in the slippery paper you only encounter in a doctor’s exam room, the rubber bottles of antiseptic, and the hodgepodge of clamps. Happily, the event was relatively tame (my limbs behaved, I was docile). In what seemed both a minute and an epoch, I was unleashed unto the world, soaring on a rush of adrenaline. I was pierced in a minimally bad-girl way; now everything was going to change.

And that was just it: the parlor sales associates may have sensed my trepidation, but it was entirely secondary to the idealistic enchantment radiating from my every facial pore. I had carefully studied the music video for Aerosmith’s “Cryin.” Alicia Silverstone takes a turn for the badass after she acquires her sexy belly button ring (and after she gets a tattoo, but, again, I suffer from commitment issues). I had no plans to bungee jump from an overpass, and I didn’t have any ex-boyfriends who deserved a good scare and the middle finger. But maybe that was the problem.

Getting my belly button pierced seemed to me like a spot of pain in the pursuit of pleasure. It was a promise to myself to be more sexually bold – to maybe even bare my midriff when I wasn’t sea or poolside. I was going to kiss boys, and then some. I was going to have the sort of interactions with boys that involved them actually seeing my belly button ring. Cheesily antithetical to the promise rings of the Disney Channel teeny boppers, my belly button ring symbolized my intent to get some – and, more importantly, to not be afraid of getting some. Thus far, college had not been the sexual playground I had hoped it would be, primarily because I was too timid to approach guys unless a beer or two had lowered my defenses. And even then, I was, all things considered, quite chaste.

Oftentimes when people get their navels pierced, they justify it to others by saying, “Just knowing I have it makes me feel sexier. No one needs to see it.” I parroted variations of this remark to my friends, and I think, for me, the statement was valid up to a certain point. It was satisfying to see the little barbell that slid through the rim of my navel. Sometimes, when it caught my eye, I would smile like a goon. Yet it was part of a larger project of cultivating my sexual persona, part of the body that I was learning, slowly, to love. Someone seeing it—someone with whom I shared mutual desire—would feel like a triumph.

So I returned for the second semester of my freshman year with this modest adornment. Nothing much changed, really – I certainly did not become the sex goddess of my wildest ambitions. But I did become more sexually bold, empowered by the thought of the little glistening jewel in my stomach. At a time when I struggled to accept my face, with its vaguely Semitic traces, the reminder of my belly button ring shored up my confidence. It wasn’t a means of negotiating self-acceptance. I wanted to love my whole body; I am still trying to love it. But in that fleeting moment, my belly button ring became a sort of weirdly anthropomorphized cheerleader.

It was there when I lost my virginity, an event that was, in reality, woefully unsexy. It reminded me of my feminine sexual agency when I was twenty-five and separating from my husband and could not help but feel that I had broken my life into fragments and flung them over my head. When I timidly explored new love, its presence reminded me that I deserved pleasure – and was capable of giving it to another.

Now I am twenty-eight and contemplating allowing the piercing to heal. In a few years, my soon-to-be husband and I want to have children. I’d prefer not have a widening chasm in the middle of my stomach over the course of a pregnancy. I’ve been told time and again how long it takes a navel piercing to fully heal. Still I’m so reluctant to make the move.

I wondered at first if this reluctance stemmed from a sense of missed opportunity. My mental sex checklist does remain fairly incomplete. And it’s true: being more sexually adventurous—outside of a monogamous relationship, that is—could have been liberating, empowering, exciting. Or maybe I would have been largely underwhelmed. Regardless, I don’t think it is regret that keeps me from sliding out that little barbell; it’s the sense of loss I know that I will feel. The satisfaction of minor rebellion has never dissipated; I am if nothing else a chronic good girl. But over the course of our decade together, I have learned other, various ways to feel erotically empowered and desirable. If I am parting ways with my trusty piercing, I am still cultivating my sexual self by other means. The promise to get some lives on! It just adapts to circumstance.