Recommendation: “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

I am by now convinced that I’ll never not enjoy a Kate Atkinson novel. I can’t say this is my favourite of hers, but that still puts it above most other books. I picked this book up the day I found it had come out in paperback. Atkinson isn’t a writer who you see and don’t grab.

Juliet Armstrong is one of the hundreds of girls brought into the security service on the outbreak of the Second World War. Soon she is selected to join an MI5 operation tracking and recording Nazi sympathisers. We jump between 1940 and the doubts of the early days of the war, to 1950 as Juliet now works at the BBC and has to face new doubts about decisions she made during the war that might be coming back to haunt her.

As always Atkinson presents her story through and emotional and beautifully rendered world. If feels like a different type of historical spy novel. A spy thriller from the point of view of the transcription girl. And it is historical, based on real operations undertaken at the time.

As I said above, it’s not my favourite of Atkinson’s novels. She has written enough now that I feel that can be said without sounding like I’m saying she’s slipping. Some books will be better than others. It’s still an amazing read, and drags you along as soon as it grabs you.

Make the effort, branch out, discover more

So once again International Women’s Day has snuck up on me. I always mean to plan ahead for days like this so I have something profound, interesting or inspirational to put up here. Luckily for me, I just happen to be in the middle of reading something from an author who is all three of those things. One who just happens to be a woman, and someone I discovered by purposefully going outside my comfort zone.

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A while ago, I released most of the books on my shelves were from white, male writers and that keeping my reading so restricted was going to be limiting my own growth as a writer.

My first step to rectify this was a simple internet search for women writing in horror. From just a quick browse, the name Shirley Jackson kept popping up. And so I picked up her horror story The Haunting of Hill House.

And, as anyone else who has read this book will understand, I was instantly smitten.

I’d don’t know any writer who can so expertly craft stories that remain so intimately personal the more the action unfolds. Her protagonists – at least in what I’ve read so far – feel fleshed out and real beyond most writers. Usually, when we read we don’t think about how the characters are just that; characters. As good as they are, we know deep down they are not, and our willing suspension of disbelief allows us to ignore this as long as they fit the story world. But Jackson creates entire characters that you feel you know and understand intimately. The action of the plot may be happening all around them, but all of it is shown through such a focused point of view that it’s hard not to feel that we are not literally watching through the character’s eyes. Her grasp of the isolation felt only while in the midst of other people is pitch perfect. I don’t know any other authors can so deftly express so much about how our lives are constrained by the world and the people around us like Shirley Jackson. If you know of any, please recommend them to me.

I’ve re-read The Haunting on Hill House several times now. It’s a massive influence on my current project. Every time I’ve been stuck I’ve used as an opportunity to read it once again, and every time I leave it with fresh ideas and inspiration. It’s one of those books that instantly leapt into my all time favourites. I could easily read it over and over without it ever getting dull.

I’m now reading this collection of her short fiction, and with each story I love her work all the more. I’ve heard so many things about how good The Lottery is, only the quality of the stories before it is stopping me skipping forward and reading it first (it’s the last one in the collection). Each story is a snapshot into a world reflected through the eyes of her protagonist. The theme of each one is both simple and complex, a stream running deeper than it appears.

So if you want to mark International Women’s Day by reading a kick-ass female writer, and you haven’t discovered her already, I can’t recommend Shirley Jackson enough.

And so let this be a lesson in the benefits of branching out and trying something outside of your comfort zone. I discovered one of my favourite authors through by recognising that my reading wasn’t diverse enough and making the effort to do something about it. Let’s ignore the underlying problem of why it wasn’t diverse for now, shall we – That’s an issue for a different post – and imagine what I still have to discover by just making an effort to try something different?

Writer problems; unexpected inspiration

Last night I had a flash of inspiration, which now has developed into a full concept for a new fantasy/horror novel.

Now I just have to deal with the struggle of fighting down the urge to start developing this new idea further, as I’m already well into my next novel and have at least two more already on the shortlist for the one after this.

So, notes have been made and stored, with each idea written down safely. Now to let it percolate in my subconscious while I get working on the next one in line.

I guess I can’t complain that I have too many ideas for novels. It’s still a pain, though.

A little inspiration

I’m facing a bit of a creative block with the first draft of my next book. Not Writer’s Block – I have no problem putting words down onto the page – but rather a gap in my mind for where the story needs to go next. I have the first third written and I know how I’m planning on the story ending, but there is currently a large gap where the bulk of the second and third acts go.

I’m not completely bereft of ideas. I have set pieces that I’ve had in my head since the beginning. I’m simply stuck on how to work them in. Every time I sit down and try to think about it, I simply find myself staring into the vast gaps where something is missing with no idea of how to fill it.

So it’s inspiration time, and where else to go to inspire a writer working on a haunted house story – did I mention that my next book will be a haunted house story? – than one of the best; Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

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Alone in the world, Eleanor is delighted to take up Dr. Montague’s invitation to spend a summer in the mysterious Hill House. Joining them are Theodora, an artistic sensitive, and Luke, heir to the house. But what begins as a light-hearted experiment us swiftly proven to be a trip into their darkest nightmares, and an investigation that one of their number may not survive.

I discovered Shirley Jackson in a blog post I read a while ago about essential female horror writers. Sorry, I wish I still had the link as it had some good suggestions for writer you should all read. But this was one of them, and I’m passing it on to you all.

It’s hard to come up with a new Haunted house stories. After a childhood of Scooby-Doo, the entire sub-genre seems so clichéd, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any good haunted house stories out there, or waiting to be written. Like any genre trope, all you need is (a) a new perspective, and (b) engaging characters the reader will care about. Jackson’s story has both of these. She created a truly chilling story that’s far more about the mind of her protagonist than the house itself, and that’s what I’m looking to emulate.

And what you also need – and would be very helpful to me at this point – is more of an idea of what’s going to happen in the second half of my story. Oh well, back to staring at my notes and trying to come up with something.

I’m getting ahead of myself

So I’m sitting on the bus this morning, listening to one of my writing podcasts, and an idea for a future book pops into my head.

Cue the remainder of my commute being spent constructing the entire thing in my head; the structure, themes, everything. The concept and conceit slipping into place in my mind almost without trying. It’s simple. It’s clever. It’s interesting. And above all it’s going to be a lot of fun to write.

Having an idea drop into your head fully formed like this is one of the most wonderful and exciting experiences a writer can have.

And now I sit back and realise that first I have to finish off The Æther Collection, then I already have my next project planned and ready to go, meaning it’s going to be at least a year before I can start working on this new idea.

Damn it!

RIP Sir Terry Pratchett

About 20 years ago my mother took out an audio book from the local library for me. When I was younger I used to find it hard to fall asleep without noise in the background, so I would listen to tapes from the library, most of which were picked out by my mother.

Something about this story engaged me more than most, but much to my chagrin I discovered that ended abruptly and without closure. The main character simply dropped off the edge of the world, no less. When I mentioned how unsatisfying this was, my mother informed me that not only did the story continue in the next book, she actually owned it so I could read it straight away to find out what happened next.

Which I did.

This was my introduction to the Discworld, and the writing of Terry Pratchett. It was also the beginning of my true love of reading. I imagine everyone has that one book or author that got them hooked on the possibilities of the written word, and for me it was this. These were the first books I read – at least that I can recall – that were actual grown up books. They had been bought by my mother for herself, not for me or my sisters.

And so after listening to The Colour of Magic I went straight on to read The Light Fantastic. Then Equal Rights. Then Mort. Then the rest.

The Discworld series was my indoctrination into reading for pleasure; of losing myself in language and story. My mother already owned all the Discworld books which allowed me to read my way through all of them without stopping. By the time I had finished them I was ready to move on to other authors, but throughout my adolescence and adulthood I would always come back. Every six months, a new book. I sought out everything I could. I bought the Clairecraft Discworld models. I found the official side books, such as the maps and the diaries. I played all the point and click adventure games. I took part in the local kids theatre groups production of the theatrical adaptations. I found his non-Discworld stories.

Sir Terry Pratchett was one of the biggest influences in my life. His writing was witty, satirical, smart, biting, and yet somehow wonderfully easy to read. He had a style and ease with words that made his work universal, using the world he created to so wonderfully reflect our own. He could twist real world institutions, traditional fairytales and Shakespeare into something new and unique. He had a viewpoint that cut into what mankind is and what it could be. His novels, almost all of which are set in a fantastical world floating through space on the back of four elephants riding a giant turtle, contain ideas and discussions on morality and humanity that any philosopher could be proud of. He was someone who understood the world and had the talent to show the rest of us in a way that we could understand while at the same time making us laugh from our gut.

I’m not usually one for taking part in the mass mourning that pours out when someone famous dies. I’m cynical, and can never get over the fact that I’m sure 90% of the people who flood social media with tributes have no real emotional connection with the person they are eulogising. But Sir Terry Pratchett’s death truly is something personal to me. I never met him – to my sorrow – but his writing has been with me my entire life – literally, as the first Discworld novel came out the year I was born – and has played a major part in inspiring me to be a writer.

I can’t imagine how many words will be written over the next few days honouring this man. Writers all over the world, everyone who has ever read his words and shared in the worlds he created will feel his loss. I’m sure that people with far more skill than I, people who knew him personally and shared his life, will put what I am feeling into more eloquent words than these. And what better way could there be to honour such a great and influential writer than with words that try to reflect those he gave us.

Goodbye Sir Terry. I hope you knew exactly how much you meant to us all. The world is a slightly darker place, but a better one for having had you in it.

Terry&Death