Six months of 2017 in books

Last year, I published a list of what I had read during the year. I thought that, this year, I’d get it down in two instalments. As before, I should love to know what others are reading. So do comment or talk to me! I don’t have time to review all these, but when I am done with the current fit of writing, I will try to post a few reviews, with a focus, I hope, on the independent presses. Also, I will update this list as I’ll likely forget something!

I read as much as I can and I read quickly. In snatched hours, in the bath, on the train, little bits of time carved out. But mainly, I go to bed earlier than I would naturally do purely so that I can read. I want to be frank about this. It’s how, as a child and growing up, I coped with anxiety and trauma. I went to bed and built a world. I do believe that with books, you can rebuild your mind and, to this day, it’s what I do.

Why?

Because every day is a conscious attempt to stay well and to manage, as best I can, my mental health: it has broken several times. Okay, many times. But I am back. Then there’s the pleasure of it all and the way my imagination is hotly stimulated. The way that reading, for me, leads on to discussion and friendship. As, I’ve discovered, does writing. Why did I ever think otherwise? And by the way, if you are feeling low or really, properly battling, I am not an expert, but I can tell you which books have soothed me, including the very few non-fiction texts I have read about mental health – though I have to preface that with, proceed with caution because, as I said, I’m no expert, but I CAN share. x

In no particular order, my reading over the past six months…

Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Finally got round to it. Also, the second book of his Bleak House (a re-read). I also re-read A Christmas Carol because I was teaching it for GCSE. To support my older children I read Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner and  Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree. Now, this I found this an excellent read and was delighted to find a friend had been reading it, too. Cue – memorable and moving discussion en route to the hustings in Swindon, two days before the general election. WHICH REMINDS ME: the same person has left Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (still haven’t read) and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Summer reads, then. 

At top speed, for GCSE teaching I re-read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Woman in Black. Which led on to my re-reading of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw in one bit, sitting on the floor, because it was next to The Woman in Black on my sitting room bookshelf. I discovered, through the new OCR English Language and Literature spec, the first poetry collection from Jacob Sam La Rose Breaking Silence (Bloodaxe), which led to some wonderful things. Some of his poems prompted me to revisit one of my favourite modern poets, Tony Harrison. There will have been assorted other reading in here too – going over GCSE (and IGCSE) literature and poetry anthologies and the like; reading for A levels in English Literature and English Language and Literature and the EPQ…but it was Jacob Sam La Rose who was my new discovery.

Edith Sitwell: Fanfare for Elizabeth

Ben Myers: The Gallows Pole and Beastings. Shout out for the independent presses – here, Bluemoose. These are wonderful books. Enormously atmospheric. He’s brilliant, I think, on landscape.

On the subject of indies, from And Other Stories (we have a couple of subscriptions at Bookworm Towers), I am currently reading The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar), which is stunning, and Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End, a series of sharp and funny stories which make me very jealous too: never have I managed to craft one as she does! I’ve just ordered Hold Tight by Jeffrey Boakye – that’s an Influx Press title. Oh, there are so many indpendent presses – but my favourites – that is, of the ones I’ve explored – The Linen Press, Patrician Press, Galley Beggar, And Other Stories, Influx, Comma Press and Bluemoose. I read from all over, but get some of my greatest pleasure from texts published by risk-taking independent presses. That’s not to say risks aren’t taken by bigger concerns. Why not read both?

Dipped into a favourite book on writing (and close reading), Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. This precipitated both editing and reading (I hope she knows how useful she is!) – in this case, going back to Chekhov’s short stories.

I am about to read Jess Butterworth’s Running on the Roof of the World, Jo Barnard’s Hush Little Baby and Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of my Youth. I love Chauduri’s books. Such restraint, so moving and unmistakeably his. I thought his last book, Odysseus Abroad gently broke a few rules (the rules you read about…) including ‘show don’t tell’ (bit bored with this): oh, he tells beautifully, and I felt the book was wonderfully episodic and that some of these epiosdes would have stood as short stories. More on which when I’ve got round to reading the latest one. Jo Barnard is a lovely lady. Very encouraging to others (including me) and a lean, spare writer at the literary end (what do I know? So kill me now if I have this market appraisal wrong!) of commercial fiction and cool in a hot and crowded market. That is a considerable achievement, in my view. I’d recommend her debut, Precocious. Unsettling and very well judged in tone. Jess is an old friend and I am very excited for her and cannot wait to see what she does in this, her debut, a MG set in India and Tibet, subjects close to her heart, as they are to mine.

For book groups I re-read A Tale of Two Cities, read PD James’s Innocent Blood – do you know, I had never read a P.D. James book – and Gilly McMillian’s What She Knew (which, by the way, is the same book as Burnt Paper Sky – hence the odd furious review by folks who bought the same book twice). Regarding the latter, generally speaking, I seem to fail with psychological thrillers. I read the Amazon reviews and those on Goodreads and generally feel like I haven’t read the same book, in that the ‘twists’ seem obvious to me – you know like in Of Mice and Men, when the foreshadowing smacks you round the face so hard – girl with the red dress/mouse/puppy/Candy’s old mutt/Curley’s wife…Lennie gets shot? Never saw that coming! It’s that kind of experience – and I don’t find them nail biting at all. I’ve been told that this sounds sneering, but it’s only my opinion and a statement of what works for me. Apologies if I’ve denigrated Of Mice and Men (quite like Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath, though…) but to me Steinbeck is a pygmy compared with giants like…Faulkner and Wolfe. Oh yes: I have an idea. Why not read – although you won’t sleep afterwards – Ali Land’s striking debut novel, Good Me Bad Me before or after Innocent Blood? Some of the same themes rise up. Criminality. The choices that children and young people make in extremis. (Ali was previously a children’s psychiatric nurse and that gave the book a certain heft for me.) What it might mean…not to feel, or to feel unusual things. I don’t want to give more away. Yes. Do that for a book group.

But back to Southern US literature and…

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, which I will re-read in a little while (I want to write something about her), well, that is brilliant. Is all this meandering discussion awful, do you think?

Which brings to me to…

Of Time and the River and (currently reading) The Web and the Rock. Thomas Wolfe. In my view, a genius and we lost him so young.

Patrician Press launched its Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers and we had a lovely event at the Essex Book Festival; I read everything in it and that led me on to (two indies here) Refugee Tales from Comma Press.

Now, for my own current book, Saving Lucia (or even Passerines – depending on who nabs it…), I’ve been re-reading Joyce, so I’ve had Finnegans Wake and Ulysses to hand. Also lesser known Joyce works – Pomes Penyeach. I’ve been reading up on Joyce, Beckett, Mussolini, the history of psychiatric care (I listed some of this stuff in last year’s post and also it’s in my bibliography at the end of Saving Lucia – one for the future, if you be interested); I read Annabel Abbs’s The Joyce Girl and continued to dip into Frances Stonnor Saunders’s exemplary account of Violet Gibson: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini and Carol Loeb Shloss’s Lucia Joyce. To Dance in the Wake. I’ve been reading articles in The Lancet, articles on Queen of the Hysterics, Blanche Wittmann and accounts of Bertha Pappenheim (there’s a need for a bigger study and, I would say, what exists needs to be translated from the German because she is fascinating!); I also looked (in German) at Bertha’s book of prayers – Gebete and found an English translation of her short stories, The Junk Shop and Other Stories and finally read Florence Nightingale’s posthumously published Cassandra – which Virginia Woolf said was more like screaming than writing. I concur. Also, religious texts, archive work (letters and documents) and miscellaneous articles.

And I think we are there!

Two other things on reading and writing. How good it was to see the Authors for Grenfell auction raise so much and I was pleased to be a tiny part of it. I’ve a tea party coming up – and also a tour of Pembrokeshire, visiting all the settings in my second book, The Life of Almost, which comes out in autumn, 2018 with Patrician Press. Also, in September, for the first time, I have a work experience student and I am so excited. I am still a newbie fiction writer (I put pen to paper in mid July 2014, although I’d been a freelance author before and writing is not my day job) and this kind of thing makes it feel…real. We are going to get a writing project off the ground; she’s going to submit work for publication. She may also help me with editing of and suggestions on two anthologies of which I am co-editor and editor, respectively. Said student (she’s in the upper sixth) is reading the manuscript of my third book – which led to her mum reading it too…which led into a date to discuss it. and, I hope, a super-clever new beta reader. Yay.

I’m sorted on my reading for the next few weeks, the manuscript of Saving Lucia goes out again on the 20th of July  – and in the meantime I wait to hear if others are biting…it is a long process and probably a good education for me, seeing as I rush at everything like it’s my last day. (In my defence, it could be: I’ve had a lot of people die on me, some of them very suddenly: another story – some of which is in my first book Killing Hapless Ally, if you are not freaked out by very dark humour. If you are, don’t read the bits of The Life of Almost concerning a love story in a funeral parlour…)

Other booky things: my two Grenfell offers to fulfil in summer and autumn and archive work in St Andrew’s psychiatric hospital, Northampton.

And reading Horrible Histories in bed when stressed or sad. Oh forgot: I had norovirus so badly I was hospitalised. During that period I read Gren Jenner’s (he’s part of the Horrible Histories telly team) A Million Years in a Day. A jolly diverting read.

AND FINALLY

Quibbles and possible spelling errors spotted in some of the books, above (English teacher forevaaa):

prophesise (prophesy) as verb

disinterested (to mean uninterested) – feel free to argue

past (for passed)

Thursday’s…Friday’s…for simple plurals, not possession

it’s when you mean its (ugh!)

passer bys

me/I/myself I won’t blather on about that because I sound like a twat. BUT in a top selling book for which I’ve shelled out, say, £12, it niggles to see a chapter starting (names changed) “Me and Andrew left France…”

I have been spelling fuchsia wrong my whole life. And cardamom. So I’m a fine one to talk. In my Killing Hapless Ally, Myfanwy twice appeared without the first y. My fault. And I swear as if my life depended on it.

Love,

Anna xxxxx

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The Life of Almost,a breathless Killing Hapless Ally and choosing your ending.

I have written a strange little second book. I suspect I will always write strange books. Big ones and little ones. The first, Killing Hapless Ally, was placed with a small press. As such, it is not, naturally, going to fall into so many hands. And yet and yet…I cannot tell you how rewarding it has been to discuss the book with its readers.

I know it is a challenging book; it is busy and breathless and constantly allusive. It is a work of fiction, but this rush through a history, through a mind, was deliberate. Its publisher understood and supported this; loved its density and fragmenting quality: its form was part of the effect, you might say. But to other readers it will be too busy, appear too dense and poorly edited. I took a risk – and my hope with Killing Hapless Ally was always that this was a long game. What I wanted was to write at least a book a year; to establish a catalogue and, gradually, for more and more people to find it.

But back to the discussion with readers. It has been read by people suffering from mental health problems and those who seek to understand what they might look like – as such, I have had many raw and challenging conversations about the book. It has been read by psychologists and academics – very recently, one who feels it will be instructive in their work, in addition to finding it entertaining. It is, after all, a black comedy! But at the moment the thing I really like is that some of my older students are reading it, which has meant that I felt I should mention to parents the book’s graphic content. It does not flinch in its illustration of depression, anxiety, self harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. I am laying myself bare here, aren’t I? But you see, there is a foreword to the book which reads rather like a mission statement. The book is based on episodes in my own life; to my mind it reads like a memoir, rather than a novel (again, this hybrid will irritate some readers because they do not recognise the novel form in it – more on which another day) and, in telling a/my story, I said that if I were not upfront about the mental health problems I have suffered from repeatedly since childhood, then that would be “to do a disservice to those who are yet to recover or find appropriate help.”

Now, back to that second book. The Life of Almost. Who is he and what is he? Is he alive or dead? What is his purpose? Well I like ambiguity and grey areas. If a book promises a twist at the end, you can bet I’ll have guessed it on page three; I’m that sucky person who shouts out the answers not long after it starts, which is why I am bound to silence when watching films  or telly with my husband. Like a kid at panto. “It’s binary and he’s the ghost!” (Interstellar.) “It’s his sister and I bet Moriarty’s helping her!” (Sherlock Holmes). I’m happy to know the ending or not to have things promised to me. Anyway, The Life of Almost has, at present, two different endings. Casuistry. Pick one. “What do you want? What do you expect?”, to quote Owl Eyes in the library in The Great Gatsby. And also, because the book is also a reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations, the two ending recall what happened with that book, a note of explanation being underneath. I think I can get away with setting text out here. If the book gets commissioned, this bit of the blog post might have to go!

But you know – this is relevant, I promise! –  I am struggling at the moment: depression, sadness, they have the better of me; I wake, frightened, at night; I start at noise: my mind races, thoughts collide and crash and back come the hauntings of early experience. I cannot bear bright light or loud sound; sometimes, I hear sounds when they are not there, a constant auditory disturbance; sometimes music, often quotation. This has always been a feature. No-one’s experience of depression or mental health problems is quite the same. Mine is jangling and mult-coloured; fast fast slow. But I can do this. I CAN. There is no miracle. I rebuild my mind with books and thought and friends.

I have to say that I can choose an ending here because an ending is also a beginning, isn’t it? As Dorothy Rowe would tell you, “Even the worst day does not last forever.”

Casuistry. Which ending, for Seren and Almost, would you rather? The other person in the text is Catherine, who begins the book. And it is Catherine who begins summer 2016 in a state of welling despair. That is why Almost appears, from the sea-coast, off-world, whatever you like (as I said, I like ambiguity) to begin a bitter magic.

Here.

Pick.

‘The two endings, Catherine. Listen and choose. I begin with a poem. For her. Everything is for her.

If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,

Why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six point star.

I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,

But innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.

I speak of love and quiet worlds, the county town on winter nights:

The sweets of honey bees, a view of ruby sky and amber lights—

A mermaid Terpsichore, sand-snow, auroras made of rosy glow,

My Borealis blood-red sheenif I should fall, then make me know.

When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,

Be gentle with the tenuous forms of memory; do not grieve too soon.

Consider thiswhy should we be, ephemeral and urgent? How?

And speak to me with confidence, declaim for me on cliff or prow.

In nature’s fragile frame I see a world that lives beyond the hill,

Beyond the log pile, salt and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.

And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen—

And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.

I met her out there. I felt her, thoughts carry: I always knew where she was. I walked beyond St David’s to look at the Blue Lagoon, turned back and walked and walked to Abereidy, then through the bluebell wood, by the mud and stream to the fierce mouth, Abermawr. Skimming stones into the sea, she was. Oh God, aflame. I could hardly stand her beauty. She saw me and walked slowly my way as I cupped a pebble and steadied my thoughts and tried to control my tears.

Seren. Star. Always her. A mermaid I trapped on land and who never forgave me.

She said this: ‘Boy. Always boy.’

I said, “Age does not wither her” though I knew I was lying and I saw I was fresher and new, still.

“Roland is dead. I am…I am different, Almost.”

Oh she wept and howled into and out of a fierce mouth and hurled the rocks across the breakers and I went to her and held her while she told me of her life with him; of the spite that held, the jokes that cracked and broke; resentments, brutal, scorning others just because they had a better boat; a finer cast of house or leg or anything. He hated the world and everyone in it, handsome damned man who had fooled her. I said, ‘I will find him dead and flay him for you, Seren, for you, my love’ and I meant it, brute like daddy, down under the sand in another sea and time. My howl was elemental; perverse. We clung to each other.

He, Roland, touched her wrong; he did not cradle her at night, not understand that her own beautiful scorn was from her pain, sea girl trapped, and if he had, what would it have mattered? He had her to set on his arm and place where he should and that was enough. He used her roughly; cursed her barren; not a mother, nor a soft gentle thing. He cast her out, within her home. I could not stand to hear it all and howled again and she clung and my God I cannot tell you how beautiful she was because it would be like…it would be like trying to beat the heart of a star with a warped broom; like lifting up prayers with dirty hands and biting mouths. That is something like it was.

We walked out through the woods and I gathered bluebells, pressed them upon her in a fever.

“Forgive me, Almost.”

“I already have” I said; I fell on my knees in the stream and mud and the bluebells were crushed with I and her and us together, tremendous.

Her heart was opened then. I saw it.

Afterwards, I took her hand and I knew that there would be no shadow of another parting from her. I thought, also, that one day we might find her garb, as for Derian out at Oystermouth; as for Miss Davies, somewhere in her wild garden, under the fingers of creeping moss and the care of the kind willow. There might, yet, be a way back to the sea. For her and, in growing magic or the charms of the englynion, because poems carry, for me.’

Chapter 17. Or a star dies

‘But then again, is this how it was? Catherine, do you prefer this ending?

I begin, as I often do, with a poem. This one is about endings, when we come to recognise they have arrived, that is.

So,

We climbed the downward spiral of the trail

To best the shedding fingers of the cliff;

I’d promised you, oh love, I could not fail—

I’d prove to you against our childish tiff

That there was treasure to be found that day—

Albescent moons to cradle in your hand—

Sea urchins fine, a little world to say:

Echinocardium, wanting to be grand.

But my world was not yours, you did not care

To hold the little lanterns in your palm—

The hollow globe within the greatest fair,

You did not care if such should come to harm.

So cracked the sea potato on the tide:

I knew, although I smiled, my love had died.

I knew where she was. I felt her. I walked there, out beyond St David’s, the lovely harbour at Abereiddy, turquoise of the Blue Lagoon, then through the bluebell woods to Abermawr. She knew I would find her, of course. Out there, hurling stones across the breakers and howling her pain. She did not stop me taking her in my arms, drawing time-stopping kisses from her. Too late, too late, though, Catherine.

For this is what happened.

Everything I said of Roland was true, but when he died, consumed by his own acid and pride, Seren married a quiet local man. Not rich, but comfortable, like, and they lived in a house looking out across Ramsey Sound. This is the road she had taken, my beautiful mermaid girl. And she had a child, too: how could I claim her now? Oh Catherine, do not laugh: she called the boy ‘Nearly’ and he was her joy. I could see that. How could I claim her now? She seemed old, though she was not, and greatly changed and sad.

What could I do? My heart was broken.

I reached down and picked up an auger shell, she cupped it in her hand with tears in her eyes and then she turned, picking her way across the pebble beach to the bluebell wood and she was gone.

And that is the ending, almost. Which ending did you prefer? Which shall we have? And really, all I want to ask you, Catherine is this: did any of this happen? Was any of it true? And am I really here, June two thousand and sixteen, in your kitchen. Now, what do you think?’

Then I wept, cried until I was dry, not comprehending the world. I felt his fingers brush my arm: electric. Then he was gone, too, and had ended his story.

An explanation of the two endings.

‘Because of the mystery and ambiguity of the book, the uncertainty of its endings, or rather that Catherine should have some choice in how it ends (including, I would say, in what she does about her own sorrow after Almost has passed on elsewhere), seemed fitting to me. But there is another reason. Great Expectations is very important to this book for The Life of Almost is at least a partial reworking of it and that book had its ending changed at the last moment. Edward Bulwer Foster, Dickens’s friend and a fellow novelist, had been keen that Pip and Estella were united at the end of the story. The account goes that Dickens felt his friend argued such a good case that he subsequently agreed to make a change. “I resolved…to make the change…I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.” George Bernard Shaw published an edition of Great Expectations in a limited edition run with his preferred ending: the one Dickens had written first and which he argued was, in fact, “the truly happy ending.” Some have argued that this was a perverse argument, but I prefer the sobriety of the original and find it more fitting for the brooding, disillusioned narrative tone through the book. So,

“I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”

OR, the former, when Pip, walking along Picadilly, is told a lady in a carriage wishes to speak to him: it is Estella:

“…I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.”

But now, if you wouldn’t mind making tea and trimming up some Welshcakes but without a recipe and with one hand only, I shall offer you my last. Do you know that, sometimes, stories have two endings? Of course you do. In old books, sometimes the author wrote an ending that was too sad and his publisher demanded it more palatable; a triumph. Triumph is sometimes untrue, of course, but what would you like? What do you expect and how may I help?

Almost Derian Llewhellin, all time a room in which to roam.’

Anna Vaught, Wiltshire, two thousand and sixteen.

Epigraph of The Life of Almost

For Ned. Because Almost is also a love story: Seren, Mfanwy, Perfection, Mammy, the sacred headland and the mermaids. And you are my story and my song. x

This is what it says at the beginning of my next book, The Life of Almost: wish me luck, as it has gone, by kind request, out to an agent who liked the writing in Killing Hapless Ally; the ms has also gone to a press; later in October, it is going out elsewhere and, to my utter surprise, a really lovely person at one of, you know, the big five, said they would look at it just to be helpful. I said it wasn’t really, as far as I could see, a commercial proposition, but then it is the next story I had in me. I know it’s ambitious and I do know about Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs. Ah, but bear with now. This one now is comical, I hope; indebted to Dickens and to Dylan Thomas; to generations in Pembrokeshire and beyond; to the coffin hatch in my own house; to the dead, who are legion and all around; to mermaid lore; The Mabinogion; Celtic Magic, Gwyn Williams, Danny Abse, the earliest Welsh poems, the Southern Gothic I married, books on sex, embalming and death practice, John Donne and Dickens again. And don’t you want to know who or what Almost is? How mermaids love? Why a child was found sleeping on a headland gravestone? Why moss creeps and sucks at your feet as you dare to tread? How a love story happens over the embalming table and how Almost feels, when he meets Derian Llewhellin, both fear and happiness and a blurring of his edges and how it is he begins to understand what he is capable of. The story begins this squalid summer, June 2016, but oh…it is old, old, old.

 

THE LIFE OF ALMOST OR,

A LIFE OF VERY LITTLE EXPECTATION

Anna Vaught

Disclaimer: this is a work of fiction, I swear on The Mabinogion and the sacred headland. Characters in this book are fictional, although I have drawn upon the history of my own Welsh family and diaspora and many things which to me seem normal and maybe which, to you, do not. I make no apology for references to the political situation in the summer of 2016 while a cunning clown and cohorts and a tide of rage pushed through the always unexpected rain. Real places named in the book are at least partly fictionalised and the dead and undead are somewhat mixed up. But enough: don’t you want to know about Almost? He was mine; now I am giving him to you.

All poems (unless otherwise attributed, but out of copyright) are by the author.

Lewis, the Younger, who went away

When I was a kid, Lewis took his own life.

I heard them say he took it, but where it went,

I couldn’t say or wasn’t told. Perhaps it had

been drained, in The Sloop, with all his pints,

or thrown gladly off Stack Rocks with a shout

that he married well and was a man they liked,

but I don’t know. For once, though I was very young,

I saw a look from out the corner of his eye as he shipped

off, went laughing with the pot boys and his girl:

that look it said, I think, that Lewis wanted rescuing,

but no-one came, as the sea foam danced in Cardigan Bay.

“Look’ee here, Pip. I’m your second father. You’re my son—more to me nor any son.”

Abel Magwitch, Great Expectations, chapter thirty nine.

 

‘Yes, Mfanwy: in the midst of life we are in death and here with the Dead Dears it is fair to say that we are in love.’

From The Life of Almost as I draft it…

  And there was another book that had only been seen by its owner.

Evans the Bodies wrote poems. Often for the Dead Dears who had no-one and whose lives must, he thought, be recorded for posterity. So the timid lady from the post office, who had customers and bread but no friends and a mother who would have tossed her out with the peelings for the pigs, became a cowslip in a warm meadow and drank deep of the sun and was happy; so a coarse and crooked man, who lived in the last house before St Brides Bay and whose children hated him but sang like larks for his money, was limned as a quiet man, skimming stones on the beach and smiling into the auroras of a coastal morning when no-one knew. But Evans the Bodies was a watcher for the sad and lonely. He was a dresser of bodies, to be sure, but he also had a talent for the sad soul and the lonely. And alongside his careful stitch and suture and his eye for the sick at heart, he had always loved Mfanwy: when she was someone else’s, as she laboured for and lost her child, when both times he bought her milk-white lilies and she said, ‘Evans, there’s a soft man you are’ and he cried with his back to her, as he did when she lost her husband. He put poems in the book for her, too. Imagined he was taking pictures of her, watching her written into the world all around and, as he watched the frosty lines on the windows in his cold parlour and saw the feathers and curlicues of winter, he scratched her monogram in the frost and rime and, again, he cried, and saw himself at a window as the beautiful ship Mfanwy his Love sailed away and thus he wrote again.

I had seen the rapture and the writing called ‘Mfanwy’, of course, though he did not know. I had learned it by heart and whispered it into the Pembrokeshire night, whose kind tendrils carried it to her and caressed her, then softly laid waste to sadness and silence and made her think clearly about Evans the Bodies, who loved her and always had, just so.

The Life of Almost – and an invitation, if you’re local, like.

An invitation if you are a local-ish writer or reader and would like to come for some reading and discussion of the first few chapters of the book I am working on, my follow up to Killing Hapless Ally (March, 2016, Patrician Press).

The Life of Almost is a re-working of Great Expectations, with its protagonist, Almost, roughly modelled on Pip. It has a predominantly Welsh setting, much of it being in Pembrokeshire. As such, it draws on the stories I have been listening to my whole life and so I have adapted these for the book. Stories of sailors, the strange dangers of the sea and those who love in it and on it; dark events at steam fairs; predicaments at village shows; kelp, barnacles, tough salty men, the cree of the curlew and the dead across the estuary and of how gentry moved in and spoiled all. Stories of beatings known about but hidden in plain sight; curses and vendettas; strange harpists, madness, mutism; poltergeists who threw pictures from walls and plants from windowsills and vases from above the fireplace. People who went away and never came back: stories, stories, stories. Shootings, hangings, disappearances. My idea of a picnic could still revolve around sitting by graves describing the dreadful manner in which relatives died, except I desist because I’m the mother of three young boys and I think my upbringing was definitely weird and I’m sure the kids think I’m quite peculiar, already.

So, you know roughly the story arc if you know Great Expectations, I’ve told you a little of the settings, but there’s more to it. Because, as Almost takes you through stories of his world – as he tells them to Catherine, who opens the first chapter, so tired of life – you come to realise that he is not entirely of this world and not entirely of this time: he is something more protean and unconfined; a storyteller who can shift substance in an extraordinary way and who is not compromised by, shall we say, temporal and ordinal rules…I hope, when it finds its home, that you will find the book darkly funny, maybe a bit shocking in places and that you’ll enjoy what I have done with my favourite book, Great Expectations, such as reworked Jaggers into a nasty (Ben Jonson’s) ‘Volpone’, basking in his gold somewhere off a great motorway and given you many elements of the supernatural. I did something a bit radical the other day and incorporated, euphemistically, some of the Brexit scoundrels – they are part of why Catherine, who begins the book, is so jaded and sad and thus why she has Almost come to visit. And, you know, one might question: is Almost really there at all? Or is he created by others when….they need him. Oooohhhh.

Because I stand by this and know it to be true: a story can save your life.

Like a copy of Killing Hapless Ally? Order from Waterstones, your local bookshop (Ex Libris and Mr B’s have copies in our area), the Patrician Press website or Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Killing-Hapless-Ally-Anna-Vaught-ebook/dp/B01CA5F21Y/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1468239225&sr=1-1

 

 

 

A fine new anthology to come

 

Patrician Press Anthology of Poems and Short Stories

Patrician Press Anthology of Poems and Short Stories, by Anna Johnson, EditorPublished February 1st, 2017

Prices
£3.99 (e-book)
£8.00 (print)

ISBN
9780993494543 (e-book)
9780993494567 (print)

By Anna Johnson, Editor

This anthology of poems and short stories is the result of short-listed works from a competition Patrician Press ran in 2016 on the themes of Refugees and Peace-Seekers. The entries were judged by Joceline Bury, Anna Johnson, Emma Kittle-Pey and Petra McQueen.

The selected works are now included in the anthology. Further contributions from Patrician Press and other authors are as follows: Emma Kittle-Pey, Petra McQueen, Suzy Norman, Robert Ronsson, Sara Elena Rossetti, Anna Vaught, Kenneth Steven and more. Some of the latter works are much more loosely connected to the original themes.

The collection is edited by Anna Johnson who has also written the introduction.

Latest review and what I have been reading – particularly from The Wellcome Prize Shortlist

It is early days for Killing Hapless Ally. Which is a strange feeling as I am already working on at least one other book. I am both letting her go and keeping an eye on her, and writing pieces on mental health, anxiety, literature and well-being, young people and mental health and parenting and mental health. You can access any of these through the pages of this blog, linked at top, or read some of them as blog posts here. I notice that even when I write on more frivolous topics – such as in my posts for http://www.selfishmother.com – I am also mindful of the topic of mental health. I have so much more to say here, I think.

Anyway, I liked today’s review of Killing Hapless Ally. It’s nicely written, isn’t it? That ‘So’ had me at hello.Here we are:

So. I suggest you don’t try to approach this as a book to dip into, in the few minutes before sleep for instance. The early chapters are a roller coaster of happenings expressed in dense, layered prose full of wit and horror. They are gripping and challenging at the same time, and the style cleverly reflects the state of the young Alison’s mind as she tries to cope with her family. It almost feels like the literary pizazz and black humour is there to deflect the tale of such cruelty to a child. When we get to the adult Alison’s showdown with her demons, and her work with Drs Hook and Crook, the style becomes calmer as Alison’s voice takes over. This packs even more of a punch when describing the dispatching of the chorus of Hapless Ally, Dead Santa Maria, Brother who Might as Well have been Dead, Vaguely Dead Dad and her other demons. This dispatching is incredibly moving, as is the knowledge that Alison’s voice, spirit and fierce intelligence was not dimmed despite everyone’s best efforts including her own. Highly, highly recommended.’

What am I reading? I am about to write a review of The Loney and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, about which I have conflicting views, but both of which interested me greatly. I thought, for example, that the language of the former was utterly beautiful; its evocation of landscape is something that will stay with me for a long time. I also felt it pulled off the difficult feat of making one laugh at the very time one is unsettled by the prose and full of dread. The latter, I am torn by. I am a huge fan of both Beckett and Joyce and instinctively felt at home here and yet…More to come. On my bedside table at the moment, Playthings by Alex Pheby, which is, I am convinced, entirely brilliant. Again review to come, when I get time. I do want to say, though, that all three of these fascinating titles found their home (at least initially) with small presses. May I remind you of my article on publishing with a small press myself. Here:

A Small Press State of Mind

And what with Alex Pheby’s book by my bed (and some rather ravishing other things to come from Galley Beggar Press) and most of my way through the whole Wellcome prize list, I want to recommend to you Suzanne O’ Sullivan’s It’s All In Your Head: True Stories of Imaginary Illness. She is a neurologist and has a deep interest in and respect for psychosomatic illness, which I should add is not ‘imagined’ as in ‘faked’, but a gamut of really experienced physical symptoms which, it is argued, may have their root in psychological issues. That does not under-value their reality, the pain these things cause or the havoc they wreak in people’s lives.

I felt that O’Sullivan is elucidating in what seems to me a very sensitive way the subtle link between the mind and the body. I can see from some of the negative (some furiously so) reviews on Amazon that many people have taken her to task, accusing her of misunderstanding illness for which, at the end of the day, it is hard or impossible to attribute physical cause, but I also have some personal understanding of this, in that, as someone who received mental health support and who had many years of struggling with anxiety, depression and OCD, I also had a raft of  (physically) unexplained medical problems alongside them: pain, awful fatigue and IBS to name three. Now I am mentally much stronger, because – and it would have been different otherwise: I cannot emphasise this enough – I have been helped to find the tools for health by appropriate MHRS support and I had to choose to engage with that support. And my physical health is very different. When it wavers, as it must do, both my psychological and physical responses are very different.  I would have to posit, therefore, that these things – the pain, IBS and fatigue – were, for me,  quite possibly psychosomatic and rooted in the psychological distress I was experiencing. I do feel uncomfortable stating this, but thus was my experience: pain came from pain; illness came from sadness – a fruit of what, in other times, might have been called hysteria or melancholia. It is this same inference on which some of those Amazon reviewers have taken her to task because they feel it is a misunderstanding of subtle illness.

I know that it is not easy for people and that shifting illness for which there is no attributable cause (which is not the same as saying there isn’t a cause which needs treatment or that the illness is not real to its sufferer or that it isn’t a serious matter) does not receive the compassion it should in the everyday world, so that those who suffer from something which may, by some definitions, be termed psychosomatic, also have to cope with others’ lack of understanding and sympathy. I am afraid it is also thus with mental health disorders and I certainly felt stigmatised within society and even within my own family; people still do – and that’s partly why I wrote my novel. No-one should feel both ill and persecuted and I wanted to punch stigma roundly on the nose. So, I did find much of what O’Sullivan wrote resonated with me – particularly its thornier or more uncomfortable points – because I also knew that I could, at several stages, have accepted further medical and/or psychiatric intervention which, on paper, was not essential. It is for serious illness – mental illness, I mean (and you see I am pains to point out that I am speaking only of myself because mental health problems are complex, diverse and peculiar to the individual) but I was encouraged to see I had the answers and, of course, I had my Dorothy Rowe books beside me. Her line – also not popular with all – is that depression is a prison where you are both prisoner and jailer; ergo, you put yourself in there and you have the key to getting yourself out. Human beings have the most extraordinary resources and we should never forget that.

I will take some weeks to digest the book and I urge you to read it. I hope that the tone of my comments comes across well.

Anna.