Tall ships and icecream floats


It’s been a manic few days, getting the review copies of The Other Side of Sleep out, sorting fliers for the exhibition, hounding people as nicely as I can to support the crowd funding for Solstice shorts. taking the cat the vet, rehearsing the songs Vocal Chords are singing at The Tall Ships Festival in Greenwich at the weekend…

So it’s been lovely to take a break now and then, to track the progress of the ships up from Falmouth on this nifty little map which is updated every hour. We’ve got quite hooked. Most of the ships should be moored up in the Thames at Woolwich and Greenwich by tomorrow, so the thinking is, as we won’t have time on Sunday on account of all the singing, we’ll whisk down to Greenwich in the morning for a quick look, before I head into town for a meeting and some leaflet distribution to likely venues in Highgate.

It’s also been great to read for an hour or two here and there, before sleep, first thing in the morning, or a quiet lunchtime in the garden. I’ve just back-to-backed on Kerry Hudson‘s two novels, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, and Thirst.
Both excellent gripping books, but the tension racked up in Thirst was so great at times I had to stop reading and return to work to calm my nerves!

Thirst pack shot

LonCon 3 – Suggestions?


So I’m on a couple of panels for LonCon 3, and I need to do some homework so that I’m properly on the ball. Suggested (re)reading (and viewing I suppose) please, from all you SF fans out there.

First one:

WE CAN REBUILD YOU. SF medicine regularly comes up with “cures” for disabled bodies — from Geordi LaForge’s visor to the transfer of Jake Sully’s consciousness in Avatar — but the implications of such interventions are not always thought through as fully as we might hope. How does a rhetoric of medical breakthroughs and scientific progress shape these stories, and shape SF’s representation of lived physical difference? In what ways can SF narratives address dis/ability without either minimising or exaggerating such difference?

My immediate thought is Anne McCaffery’s The Ship Who Sang and from the film world Gattaca, but can anyone suggest any other SF where future-science plays a major part in coping with, or celebrating disability? I can think of piles of fantasy, but not so much SF. Obscure short stories maybe? Oh, something just surfaced in the old brain there – Vonda McKintyre – must find… Suggestions (of things you have actually read or seen yourself, please) in the comments please!

Panel number 2:

Liechester Square: Getting London Wrong

If there’s one thing you can guarantee about the reaction to any piece of SF set in London, it’s that British fans will delight in nit-picking the details: you can’t get there on the Piccadilly Line! So who are the worst offenders? Whose commodified Londons do we forgive for the sake of other virtues in their writing? Do we complain as much about cultural errors as geographic ones, and if not, why not? And given London’s status as a global city, is it even fair to claim ownership of its literary representation?

Suggested reading /viewing on this one? (Cliff – any particular episodes of Dr Who?)

I’m thinking Day of the Triffids, Quatermass, Rivers of London, Un Lun Dun, Veronica Britton, the dreadful (but London set) Avengers movie. There’s something by Diana Wynne Jones (I think) tugging at my memory too.

I don’t want to read or watch the entire enormous oeuvre of London Sci Fi, but any suggestions for particularly well-handled London, or particularly badly imagined London? Anything that makes you cry out as Lyra does, of Oxford, in The Subtle Knife:
That’s not my London!

Comments invited!

The Woman Who Loved the Moon and other stories


wwlmFor LGBT History Month, here’s an edited version of the review I wrote for Short Review of the fantasy/ scifi/ horror collection from 1981 by Elizabeth A. Lynn

Lynn is one of the earliest fantasy writers to include same-sex relationships in her writing as a matter of course.

Author of A Different Light, The Dancers of Arun, The Northern Girl (a favourite book of mine) and Watchtower (which won a World Fantasy Award as did the title story of this collection.)

The collection hosts traditional fantasy and science fiction tales which are given a lift by strong writing, realistically strong female protagonists, and satisfyingly matter-of-fact lesbian characters.

“Explain need for Empire at this Time”

I first read this collection when it was originally published back in 1981, an important year for me, coming out and on the lookout for (to be honest, any) books that were positive about lesbians. As a convinced fantasy enthusiast I fell on the work of Elizabeth A Lynn with delight. Thirty plus years later, (long enough to have forgotten all but the general shape of the stories, with the exception of the title story which haunted me for years) these stories have worn well, although I can see their faults more. Lynn does herself no favours with her introductory paragraphs, which I quickly learnt to avoid reading, best to dive straight in to the fantasy than hear how come it took so long to find a publisher, or why she got saddled with a different title (although the variant titles thing is quite interesting!).

As with all collections there are strong, and less convincing stories, and it is when Lynn sticks to fantasy that she is at her best – it is as though an outlandish setting gives her permission to really explore psychological and emotional complexity. The horror stories (and some of the SF)  in this collection are thin to the point of transparency, and feel thrown together, whereas the fantasies engage and challenge – for this shortened version of the review I’m sticking to the positive – this IS one of the books I would save from a burning building, despite its faults.

The first story Wizard’s Domain, starts solidly with treachery and an inventive punishment followed by a forgiveness of the perceived crime, and the forgiveness of the punishment, which we are set up to not trust. Lynn puts her wizards through it: Magic is not easy, and she can be both lyrical and brutal.

The Gods of Reorth is one of those ‘the natives think were gods but we are from another planet’ stories that feel very 50’s in content, but Lynn throws an unconventional spanner into the story with her indignant goddess/alien, who doesn’t see why she should do what the leaders back at home want for this planet, but hesitates too long and has to stand by and let her lover be killed. She gets a subtle, clever revenge. One of the best stories in the book.

The Saints of Drimman takes an anthropologist exploring religious ecstasy one step too far, and I dream of a bird, I dream of a fish, is a moving bit of mother-love overcoming odds with casually plausible bio-science.

Things really pick up with The Dragon Who Lived in the Sea, which makes an unexpected tragedy from fearlessness taught to a child, a lovely thoughtful story, chock full of tension and disappointment.

Mindseye is another explorers-on-an-alien-world story, but it cleverly explores what we mean by human; and how open we can be to difference, or not.

In Don’t Look at Me, a daughter uses sleight of hand to almost gets away with murder, and you find yourself wishing she had.

Jubilee’s story (the original title Gimme Shelter was rejected by the publisher as obscure) throws in warring brothers, childbirth and abuse, and is one of those stories that you spend time thinking about what came before and what might come after.

The final and title story, The Woman Who Loved the Moon brings together lots of mythological tropes: three sisters, goddesses peeved at being compared unfavourably to mortals, kingdoms under the hill where time moves differently, and magical mirrors. Lynn draws you in with the rhythms of the language and even though you are silently protesting this isn’t going to end well, don’t do it, Kai, Lynn allows you to believe it might – just – maybe, be possible to love the moon, and astonishingly be loved back. It is one of the saddest stories I’ve read, and while it doesn’t move me the way it did thirty years ago it deserved the Word Fantasy Award it won.

Playing at Spring


We know it isn’t really spring, right? A day lent, as A.’s Ma would have said; but it is doing a fair impression: washing drying on the line, bees in the Pulmonaria, first lunch in the garden (in jumper, but still!), but we are promised the bitter east wind back again, and rain too, so i ought to be out there really, making the most of it – I am being drawn away from the computer to inventory all the plants that have died in the snow and wet. It looks like we’ve lost a particularly lovely Cranesbill.

fourhorsemenSo multi-tasking as ever, I’m listening to a book on the Black Death by John Hatcher, thinking about the garden, updating Arachne’s website fixing links that have changed, and planning out a story that might make it to Liars’ League for their Kings & Queens theme.

The problem with running a publishing enterprise is that I have no more time for writing than I ever did when I was employed. My brain is at least in the right groove, so there are plans afoot for when I do have enough time: turning Mirror into a play, putting together the next collection, fine tuning The Dowry Blade in the light of feedback from fellow author Jack Murphy, and I’ve found my material for the opera I’ve been promising myself for two years. Oh and keeping this blog up to date!

LGBT History Month


February is LGBT History Month, and I’ve had it drawn to my attention how few new UK Lesbian voices are getting published, which sent me off to peruse my shelves. Now, I think of myself as having a fairly comprehensive collection, but actually there isn’t a vast swathe of stuff there, and most of it I’ve had a while. So here’s an unscientific survey  of what’s on the shelf – inclusion doesn’t mean that the author is a Lesbian (sadly) but that they have written about lesbians with conviction, or in some honourable cases so badly as to make me weep with laughter. Having had a sift through I realise I’ve got rid of a lot of the books I bought in the 80’s, when I was devouring books at a rate of 3 a day. Some of them gave me hiccups, these are the ones that survived the cull.

Oldies but goldies (Mostly from the 20’s or earlier)

Radcliffe Hall: The Well of Loneliness, a book that probably caused more women to think they couldn’t possibly be lesbians than any other. (UK)

Rosamund Lehmann: Dusty Answer – I don’t think Lehmann can have been a lesbian herself, but she gave a lot of people a good laugh with this book. oh dear, oh dear. (UK)

Colette: The Claudine books, esp Claudine & Annie (France)

Miles Franklin: My Beautiful Career (Australia)

Nella Larsen: Passing – I read this without realising it was about a Lesbian affair. Only when I read the preface (never read the preface before the book!) did I cotton on. Very discreet! (USA)

Mary Renault: The Friendly Young Ladies. There’s an argument for Mary Renault’s entire oeuvre being designated as Lesbian books, all her male gay characters are like lesbians in disguise. (UK)

Josephine Tey: Miss Pym Disposes mystery with Lesbian sub plot. Very sad.(UK)

60’s 70’s 80’s

Rita Mae Brown: Ruby Fruit Jungle another classic of its time, but really annoying. (USA)

Rosemary Manning: The Chinese Garden (UK)

Jane Rule: Lots of books. (USA)

Penelope Lively: Nothing Missing but the Samovar – a short story collection included here for one story, one of the best, most matter of fact depictions of elderly lesbians I’ve ever read.

Anna Livia: Relatively Norma (UK)

Maureen Duffy: The Microcosm (unreadable) and That’s How It Was (Brilliant) (UK)

Caroline Natzler Water Wings. (UK)

Nicky Edwards: Stealing Time (UK)

Mary Dorcey: Noises from the Woodshed (UK)

Isabel Miller: Patience & Sarah (A book I didn’t realise was funny the first time I read it, so starved of Lesbian texts was I) (USA)

Patricia Duncker: James Miranda Barry  A magnificent book(UK)

Ellen Galford: Moll Cutpurse, Fires of Bride, The Dyke & the Dybuk (UK)

Katherine V Forrest: lots of detective fiction (USA)

Nicola Griffith: Ammonite, Stay, several others (USA)

Stevie Davies: Impassioned Clay (and others but this one especially) (UK)

Elizabeth A Lynn: The Northern Girl (and others but this one especially) (USA)

More recent:

Emma Donoghue: Hood, Stir Fry, Kissing the Witch (UK)

Helen Humphreys: Leaving Earth (US)

Ursula Le Guin: The Sea Road (Included for a single story, but Ursula’s been playing games with gender for ever, everyone should read The Left Hand of Darkness it turns your brain inside out.) (USA)

Marion Foster: The Monarchs are Flying (US)

Tracey Chevalier: Falling Angels, Remarkable Creatures (UK)

VG Lee: Diary of a Provincial Lesbian, As You Step Outside (UK)

Manda Scott: Hens Teeth, The Boudicca series (UK)

Sarah Waters: of course. (UK)

Poetry

U A Fanthorpe (UK)

Jackie Kay (UK)

Kate Foley (UK)

Carol Ann Duffy (UK)

Marilyn Hacker (USA)

Adrienne Rich (USA)

And loads of anthologies of both fiction and poetry, which probably deserve a good root through and a post of their own.

I realise now that learning to drive slowed up my consumption of books considerably, as did the job-from-hell. I go on about how I didn’t write for eleven years, but actually I didn’t read much then either. What kind of a life is that? Shocking. Something to consider: If you don’t have time to read, how are you feeding your brain?

Happy LGBT History Month! Go read a good, lesbian, book – quickly.

Earthquakes at the Circus


My writing compadre  at WooA   Joan Taylor-Rowan’s first novel The Birdskin Shoes is now available to purchase on Amazon – Kindle edition.

“A wonderful tale about love and redemption set in a Mexican Circus. Joan Taylor-Rowan writes with great freshness and assurance, and her descriptions of the ‘cirqueros’ and circus life are pitch perfect. I LOVED this book; and it deserves every possible success.” – (Katie Hickman, award-winning travel journalist and best-selling author of A Trip to the Light Fantastic – Travels with a Mexican Circus, The Pindar Diamond, The Aviary Gate.)

I read the Birdskin Shoes in draft and was thrilled by the scope and drama of it.  Joan has a vivid imagination and in this tale of high-wire acts, back streets and earthquakes she makes full use of her time spent living in Mexico; summoning up the sounds and smells of an intoxicating but sometimes violent environment.

I’m looking forward to reading the published version, but either I’m going to have to buy a Kindle or Joan is going to have to provide a paper version.  If you are ahead of me in the digital world, I highly recommend you buy a copy.

© Cherry Potts 2012

A Sense of Place


As a writer, reading is hedged about with difficulties – every book read takes time away from time writing (even when travelling, these days, although the book-to-read-on-the-train is still an honoured tradition), and there is the danger of absentmindedly siphoning off themes and even style, I am easily influenced by a good writer.  And, except when researching, I tend to find it hard work reading non-fiction.  So it is out of character for me to be reading what I have read over the summer.

Hancox, by Charlotte Moore is described as the story of a house and a family, and is based on the extraordinary archive of letters and diaries and other papers squirreled away by Moore’s family in the cupboards and attics of the house, Hancox.

I found myself actively jealous of the resources at Ms Moore’s disposal, during the Edwardian period in particular it would seem the family barely moved a muscle without recording it, and threw nothing away.  It makes A’s paternal ‘broody box’ look very half-hearted.

Moore tells of madness inherited, lovers thwarted, uncles estranged, aunts accommodated and aunts avoided; men who explored the arctic and women who never went further than the next village.  The complexity of family loyalties and betrayals over a wide-flung family tree are expertly examined, I never once got confused as to who she was writing about.  Inevitably almost no-one behaves well, and every selfish act and foible each unthinking slight and angry word is documented. Sibling rivalries and dependencies are exposed; the efforts to which the women have to go to eke out independence is breath-taking: the woman responsible for bringing Hancox into the family going to the lengths of letting it to a society for the relief of inebriates rather than share it with her needy sister and her overbearing husband, who completely failed to understand that she wanted to run  the farm herself.

And sitting toad-like on the south downs and in the middle of this narrative is the house itself: a house with a history written into its fabric, and stuffed into its drawers and cubbyholes.  It was the house, and the fact that it was on the downs, that drew me to the book and put it on my wish list, (fresh from the Eric Ravilious exhibition at the Towner and enthused by his images of the down and farmhouses thereon); but a couple of months after reading it, it is the people I remember, that and the matter of fact way people thought nothing of getting the train to the (not very near)est station and then walking for several hours to visit family, then turn round and go back, the same day.

Complementary but contrasting is Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours, which uses the creation of a garden (at Morville Dower House in Shropshire) as its centre piece, diving off into the history of the land the garden is growing in, the house that sits adjoining it, and the people who once lived there; and equally into Katherine’s own personal family history.  It’s hard to say what works best, she is marvellous on geology, medieval history and has an ability to step outside her relationships and be brutally and movingly honest about her parents.

The book is framed by the catholic medieval church hours, in that elastic time when the hour shortened as the year got dark, and lengthened again into the summer.  In some ways this is the difference between the two books, Moore takes a slice through a few years of the life of a house and family, stopping abruptly as she reaches people who are still alive, Swift delves as far back as she can go and is aware that she stands on the lip of the future, barely a mote in the blink of history.  Despite the potential for workaday in what should be a gardening book, The Morville Hours is a work of imagination, and Hancox emphatically is not, the wealth of evidence Moore has at her fingertips leaves little room for speculation.

Which leads me on to a book about London: An Acre of Barren Ground by Jeremy Gavron is described as a novel.  It isn’t, quite. It is a series of interlinking stories and slabs of research, taking Brick Lane in East London as its jumping off point.

As wide-ranging as The Morville Hours, it takes in Saxon history and the Victorian temperance movement, immigration from Eastern Europe and Bangladesh; comic books and medieval woodcuts; weavers and murderers, mudlarks and crooks.  It is so random and tangled I wondered occasionally if what was being presented as research was actually fiction.  It reminded me of Peter Ackroyd’s London, the biography; but what I found endearing about it was how characters from one story popped up in another.  Hugh the purchaser of the original brickfields in a narrative poem Le bryk place wandering through the wreck of the priory (St Mary Spittal) sees an old woman… in the retelling of the medieval woodcuts, Snecockswell, we discover Hugh’s back story, and find out who the woman is.  (This is a fascinating piece of writing, describing each imagined picture in turn; it is only when the writing on the papers within the pictures is reported that we realise who everyone is.  Were it not for those few words it would be a perfect example of how to tell a story using only visual language.)  I’m tempted to use another subset of brackets but I will restrain myself and uses dashes instead – Gavron has an odd habit of not using speech marks, which makes me feel that the words are coming from a great distance, and are echoing, very disconcerting. –

East London Female Total Abstinence Society strips away the artifice and shows the process of research and how each new nugget of information informs the development of character and plot, and gives you the story that would have been written without quite writing it.  I particularly liked the way the flood of beer released in this story invades another.

Like any London street that has been around a while, An Acre of Barren Ground is a bit of a mixed bag, some things work better than others, but it is a book I will come back to, just as I get great satisfaction from walking through London, taking in the layers and layers of history and life that make it the city it is.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011