Saturday, 13 June 2015

SWC #2: Strangers

The very fab Ashley from [insert title here] is running a Summer Writing Camp. As a generally inept human I failed to write my story before the closing of round #1, but look, here I am, linking up for #2! To get to Ashley's post, click here.


If you enjoy reading this story even fractionally as much as I enjoyed writing it, you'll enjoy it quite a lot. (I hope you do.) As someone who is writing a novel, I am absolute horrible at short stories these days. I write a few poems, but apart from that it's just novel-novel-novel. My novel:
~ first person
~ historical fantasy setting
~ present tense

This story:
~ third person
~ present London setting
~ past tense.

Do you see? It is really, really good for me to write something other than my novel. So thank you, Ashley!

PS This is a first draft, and also probably contains typos because it's late and I couldn't be bothered to read it through. Don't hate me.

Strangers

They sat next to each other on the train, still pretending to be strangers.
            Around them, the soft sounds of the carriage lulled the air toward sleep. The train whirred as it ate the miles of hills and fields; passengers read newspapers or paperback novels, or dozed with faces to the windows and headphones snaking from their ears. One of the men, red-haired and tousled, appeared to doze too. Only the man in the seat beside him knew that he was, in fact, utterly alert, and aware of every moving sound.       
            Flicking through the sports page, this man looked like any other traveller who might be going to London on a quiet afternoon when the dust motes swirled in the sunbeams. He was dark, bespectacled, unremarkable. He could be any nameless lawyer or clerk on a business trip; any brother, son or husband seeking an ordinary house in the suburbs where ordinary people waited for him. None of his fellow passengers could know that the wedding ring he wore was unweighted by a vow, picked instead to cultivate the very image they were swallowing whole.
            He flipped out his phone, tapped a few keys. I’m on the train, darling, see you later. Or, Can we moved that meeting to four on Tuesday? So the message he sent might be imagined, had anyone cared to watch. What no one could have guessed was the real line of text:
            She’s in the next carriage.
            He returned to the tennis news. Four minutes later, the dozing red-headed neighbour no one would have imagined he knew extracted his own phone. He scanned it briefly, allowed a small smile. Can’t wait to see you, one might have though it read, or You’ll be in London tonight? Fancy a drink? In truth, his sliver of smile stemmed from a different breed of anticipation. He was letting the man beside him know that yes, of course, he knew exactly the next carriage’s personnel. He was feeling the power that threaded his veins, the familiar warmth in his palms. He was thinking that it had, indeed, been far too long since he last fought a shadow eater.
            When the train reached Euston he appeared to be napping again. The dark-haired man folded his newspaper and stretched, pulling a briefcase from the overhead rack. He did not look at his red-haired neighbour, who was blinking and rubbing his eyes. Why would he? They were strangers. They stepped onto platform eight and were separated by the shifting crowd.

A woman in a long black coat checked her perfect make-up in a compact mirror as she moved through the station. If one had looked closely, they might have noticed that shadows swirled beneath her feet, darker than they should be and moving as if they were alive. She was a shadow eater, the most dangerous of bloodsuckers. She fed on darkness, calling the worst emotions of those around her and multiplying them. Only when her victim collapsed, shivering with despair, did she move to kill like the vampire she was. There were not many of her kind, but they were deadly.
            She passed the red-haired man, standing reading the train board, with no glance to spare. Her gaze was fixed ahead: on a boy, maybe nineteen, hands in his pockets, leaving the station. One might have noticed, as she followed, that his shadow seemed to darken, and flecks flew back to join her own. He frowned, turned up his music.
            The dark-haired man was buying a cup of coffee when she walked by. He rooted around for change, not looking up to see his train companion walking quickly from the station.
           
The teenage boy turned left, heading toward Trafalgar Square. His shoulders were hunched and now memories flew, unasked for, to his mind: the disappointment of his mother as she asked for his exam results. His younger sister crying as she came home from school. Clutching his drink as he watched the girl he’d wondered if he loved, entwined with a boy she’d met two hours ago at a party. He quickened his step. The woman quickened hers.
            The ginger man followed fifty yards behind, with the walk of one purposeful, but not rushing. In Euston station, his colleague would be paying for his coffee, maybe buying a sandwich. The man threw a coin to a busking violinist, smiled at some street performers. He loved London.
            The boy was slowing now, wondering if he could face the friend he was supposed to meet at the bar. His fists were clenched, his heartbeat increasing. The thought of seeing anyone made him feel sick. He didn’t want them, as every worry and doubt, every betrayal or cruel word, rushed to the surface. He turned into an alley and pulled his earphones out. His head was pounding. At his feet his shadowed seemed to be rippling, and looked too black, but of course that was stupid. He’d always been stupid, a loud voice in his mind told him, and never good enough …
            The woman entered the alley behind him. He glanced around, looked away, face burning. He was sweating. He could never be attractive; every beautiful woman loathed him. The girl he knew he loved – stupid, he was, and pathetic, falling in love – despised him. Why had he imagined he had a chance? He bent over, a physical ache filling him, and sank to his knees.
            His shadow streamed towards the smiling woman. She took a step, then another. Then felt pain slam into her side.          
            The red-haired man beamed light from his palms. It caught her, seared her, before she mustered her defences; then her shadows snapped around her and lanced towards him. He dodged the first blow, caught the second in the shin. They circled, deflecting white beams and black swirls. On the ground the boy did not look up, knowing, somehow, that he mustn’t.
            Shadows writhed from the woman and the ginger man danced away. The sent out stream after stream of light but she blocked each one, backing him toward the wall. A shadow sliced his ankle and he gasped with pain. For a second his defences fell and she smiled as she pulled at his own shadow. Misery loomed in his mind; he fought it down. A beam of light hit her shoulder.
            He pushed away from the wall and now they parried back and forth, sweat gleaming on both their brows. He drove her up the alley. His teeth were clenched. His muscles streamed with the strain of defending from both her physical blows and her attack on his mind.           
            His foot caught a cobble and he stumbled. She smiled a smile that tasted victory.
            “I don’t know why you mages bother,” she said. “You can’t win. And the mortals aren’t important … You think you’re noble, but you’re fools. You getting involved only means that I’ll feed twice tonight.”
            The man did not reply. He fought on, allowing himself to flag slightly. Nothing to make it obvious; just enough for her to think that she was winning, to let her play with him. She smiled as she deflected his light beams. She was still smiling when the dark-haired man entered the alley’s other end and slammed her in the back.
            She whirled, gasping, and they closed in on either side, beams flashing against the darkening street. Now she gathered all her strength, whipping shadows from either side, but as she sliced at the dark man she left herself exposed. With a flick of the palm the ginger man placed a beam in her neck, and she crumpled to the alley floor. Her scream was drowned by the shadows that twisted around and over her. They cloaked her in blackness. When they dissipated, her body was gone.
            The white-faced boy climbed to his feet, staring at the two men. He flinched as the one with glasses raised a hand. A soft beam of light flew from it to the boy, and he blinked twice, flooded by relief he did not quite understand.
            “You all right?” one man asked.
            “Yeah, thanks, mate,” he said. He shook his head. “I think I blacked out for a minute there … But I’m fine.” His best friend’s face, smiling, happy to see him, filled with love, flooded his mind. He saw their favourite bar, the music and the red painted walls speaking happiness, and grinned. “On my way for a pint.”
            “Enjoy.”
            The boy nodded. “Thanks. Will do.” He whistled as he sauntered away.
            The sky was the pale blue of summer twilight, smudged with the city’s orange light. Street music drifted down the alley, in harmony with the cars and sirens and the nightclubs’ bass. London was coming alive.
            The two men shook hands.
            “Not bad,” the dark one said.
            “Always a pleasure,” the other replied.
            With a nod they turned and departed the alley at either end. The streets pulsed with mortals, joyful in the summer night. Once again the two pretended to be strangers. They were content to move between the crowds of the carefree, those with no idea that they were saving the world, one happiness-stealing vampire at a time.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Top Ten Favourite Characters

Recently, Ashley @ [insert title here] and Rachel @ Secret Scribblings tagged me for the Top Ten Favourite Screen Characters tag, which has been floating around the blogosphere a bit of late. My first reaction:

Because everyone loves being tagged! Thanks guys!

But then I realised: I really don't watch much TV. 

I've never even seen Supernatural!

I know. I'm pretty unusual, as fangirls go. Yes, I am obsessed with BBC Sherlock, but apart from that, I'm in no TV fandoms. I enjoy a bit of How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory, and I love Miranda, but beyond that ... Great British Bake-off, anyone? Wimbledon? I just don't watch TV!

Of course, film characters also count, but then Rachel dreamed up a better plan. 


So behold! The totally legitimate Top Ten Favourite Book Characters tag!

1. Jaime Lannister

He looks about 17 here but oh well. 

As I'm currently reading A Feast for Crows, Jaime is very much on my mind and I had to put him first. (This list isn't in favourite order, though. Just the order I'm thinking of them.)

Jaime is an incredible creation of George RR Martin's, in that my opinion of him has changed so drastically over the course of the books. He's a pitch-perfect example of how to develop a character; how to go from hating to loving. 

In the first two books, I really did hate him. My friend who'd read more of the books told me he would grow on me ... I did not believe her. But she was right! I've gone from hatred ... to this:
... to this:

It's a strong a fictional love as I've ever had. You know. Getting super excited when it's a chapter from his POV. We've all been in love with fictional characters. Right now, I very much am.
To type that still stuns me, when I think of how generally foul he is very often. To elaborate (spoilers from up to A Feast for Crows; only highlight this white text if you've read):

In the first book, I was disgusted by his incestuous carryings-on. He had no respect for anyone, especially Ned. He was a kingslayer and an arrogant toerag. But suddenly, in A Storm of Swords, he changed in my eyes. It was his friendship with Brienne - initially he was so cruel to her, but then I began to see his honour - and his love for Tyrion, when no one else had any. I realised that he is brave, can be kind, has been in some very bad situations, and I know that he is misunderstood. And I love him. I'm also desperately and innapropriately shipping him with Brienne. Can anyone relate to this??

That is all.


2. Jay Gatsby


I've talked about my love for Gatsby before. After not really enjoying the book on my initial reading, I studied it in school and now it's probably top 5 favourite material. I absolutely love the character of Gatsby, as tragic and beautiful a tragic hero as ever there was.

"He had an extraordinary gift for hope."

Despite the futility of the American Dream - the fact that, because of his origins in poverty, he can never achieve what society promises him - Gatsby refuses to give up. His dreams are pure, beautiful, and unachievable:

"a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing."

Daisy, his lover, is a witch, but Gatsby doesn't give up on her. His story is heartbreakingly beautiful.

"He must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is, and how raw the sunlight was on the scarcely created grass."




3. The Golden Trio


What? Yes, yes this is cheating. Yes, this is three for one. Don't question me.

I love Harry with an enduring love. He goes through so much. He is so brave. He is so selfless. Not to mention his excellent fighting skills and extreme sass. 

Hermione is my queen forever. I love how she's so clever, so bookish, so hardworking. I love her role in the trio: the planner, the eye-roller, the brains behind most operations. I especially love how she's a Gryffindor, despite being so clever, because she shows that the stereotypical divides of Gryffindor-brave/Ravenclaw-clever/Hufflepuff-nice/Slytherin-evil are totally not how the houses are defined. She is so strong; one of the best female characters in modern literature. 

Ron I absolutely adore. I hate how he's viewed as the hopeless member of the trio, because he is so strong and completely necessary to keep Harry and Hermione sane. I have always loved Ron a lot

Clear
Clear

You have no idea how much I want this T-shirt from Redbubble, Anyone feel free to send it to me, anytime. 


4. Fred Weasley

Clear
I don't love most of the real people in my life as much as I love Fred. He and George make me cry with laughter every time, and they're absolute geniuses! I just -- I don't -- I can't -- I mean -- really -- I don't -- I just --



5. Anne Shirley

Tied with Hermione, Anne (of Green Gables) is my favourite female character. She's so bright and cheerful and kind, and she just has this overwhelming joy. She feels things so deeply, and sees so much beauty in the world. She's everything I want to be. 


6. Max Vandenburg


I really really really love Max: how quiet and brave he is, his drawings and his writing. The Book Thief is so due a reread. 


7. George Knightley


Mr Knightley, from Austen's Emma. Having thought long and hard, I have concluded that Emma is, in fact, my favourite Austen -- yes, even over Pride and Prejudice. And the reason? This man. Girls say they're looking for their Darcy - but Darcy is stroppy and arrogant! (I mean, I love him, but he is.) Knightley is perfect. Forget searching for Darcy, I'm searching for my Knightley!


8. Flavia Gemina and Nubia 


"Emily, that's another two in one! Stop cheating!"

No.

The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence was my favourite series when I was younger and, having recently revisited it, I can confirm that it is indeed absolutely excellent. In a literary world that sees very few strong female friendships, Flavia and Nubia are marvellous best friends. I love their relationship (even though they can be horrible to each other), and their detective skills. They are so great. 


9. Richard Campbell Gansey III


Gansey, from The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater, is one of my main fictional crushes (and a lot more straightforward than Jaime Lannister!). He is so cool, yet so vulnerable. I LOVE his and Blue's relationship (I will go down with this ship). I love his mix of the Confident One, and yet the bookish and sometimes fragile one. I love how he manages the volatility of Adam, Ronan and Noah (and Blue sometimes). I love his quest for Glendower. I just love him. 

10. Skulduggery Pleasant (in which I save the best for last)


Did I ever mention how I am violently in love with Skulduggery Pleasant and he is pretty much my favourite character ever?

He is hilarious and sassy, and yet behind all this arrogant bravado there is this vulnerable and hurt individual who is extremely brave and noble and loving. (Which, come to think of it, is also a description of Jaime and Gansey and Valentin Rusmanov and Dave the Laugh, AKA my other main fictional crushes.) Skulduggery is perfection. I love him deeply. 


WELL! That was a lot of gushing and a lot of discussion of fictional crushes. (I do have, you know, a real life with real people as well.) But tell me: do you like any of these characters? (There is a correct answer and that is "yes".) Which of these books have you read? And now, because this is after all a tag .... mwahaha!

(It's technically not the same tag, so yes, I'm tagging you both back.)
Lauren @ Always Me
Marian @ Ivory Clouds

Top ten favourite book characters tag - you're it!

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Cuckoo's Calling // Curing My Author Hangover

We are all familiar with having a book hangover.


You know ... and then when you do start a new book, you just can't stop comparing it to the previous book, and it suffers because of it. You are unfair to that new book. If you'd read it any other time, you'd have really enjoyed it. But it doesn't live up to the beautiful, genius, earth-shattering book you just read. 

But I'd like to go a step further from book hangovers. Do you ever get an author hangover?

What I mean is this. You've read a marvellous book by a particular author ... and then you're scared to go on. They've written other books. You buy them, maybe, add them to their TBR; you say, when talking about the aforesaid marvellous book, "Oh, I must read something else he/she has written!" But you don't. Because you're afraid.

You're afraid that it will never be as good. You're afraid you'll be disappointed. What if your view of that author is clouded? They are inexorably tied up with a book you love -- you don't want to have to untangle them. How could the author of your favourite book also be the author of another book you don't enjoy?

EXAMPLE: The first book of Tracy Chevalier's that I read was Girl With a Pearl Earring. It is absolutely beautiful and wonderful and I love it - on of my favourites. I subsequently read Falling Angels and Remarkable Creatures -- and were they enjoyable? Did they have any of what Girl had? 

No. No they did not. 

I've not read any more Chevalier, and I don't think I want to. In my mind she is no longer a wonderful author on a pedestal; she's just a woman vaguely connected to Girl With a Pearl Earring, but not actually, in my opinion, a brilliant writer. 

I worry about this happening again.

Specifically, with JK Rowling.

You don't have to have followed me for three years to know that I love Harry Potter deeply, passionately, transcendingly, enduringly. I return to them again and again. Plot, character, mood - all is perfect. I don't have a favourite book ... but if you twisted my arm, it has to come back to Harry.

I knew that JKR had written other books - The Casual Vacancy, and some crime fiction - and I bought The Cuckoo's Calling secondhand. 

But honestly? I was afraid to read it.

How could anything, ever, compare to Harry? Could I handle not liking a book of JKR's? I just wasn't sure. But now (and this is the longest intro to a review post I've ever written, so sorry about that), my fears are assuaged. 

Robert-Galbraith-The-Cuckoos-Calling
When the world's most sought after, publicised celebrity falls to her death on a snowy night in London, the world views it as a tragic suicide: a young girl pushed by the pressure and the media to take her own life. But the bereaved relatives she has left behind are unconvinced, and seek the help of a private detective.

Robin Ellacott, newly engaged and a month living in London, takes a temping job not expecting to find herself working as the secretary of a private detective. But Cormoran Strike, an ex-soldier with his own demons, is her new employer, and soon she finds herself swept up in the case of dead model Lula Landry. With Strike, Robin embarks upon an investigation to ascertain whether Landry's suicide was all that it seems. 

I absolutely loved this book.

I'll just say that straight up. It was utterly brilliant. From the prologue I was gripped; I read all of it, nearly 500 pages, in about 3 days, which says something (I can take months to read a book). It was just that good.

I was, of course, mentally slapping myself throughout at ever having doubted JKR. I recognised a lot from the well-loved Harry Potter series: the clean, interesting writing, that neither wallows in unnecessary description nor panders to the modern desire for a short-sentenced, journalistic style. The three-dimensional characters, each with their own story. The perfect plot.

JK Rowling is a wonderful storyteller. That's why we all love Harry so much; the plot of each book picks you up and carries you away on its inexorable tide. The Cuckoo's Calling was exactly the same: this incredible narrative, with a plot that folded out from strand and strand of the storyline. I don't read much crime fiction so I'm not well-versed in the genre, but I'm sure this was a top-end example. It kept me guessing until the very end!
I loved the way in which the past and the present entwined in the story. On the one hand, we see the plot through Robin's eyes and are caught up in the here and now, with the investigation of Landry's death. But we are also learning, slowly, more and more about Strike, who has a mysterious past that is revealed bit by bit. Even now, at the end of this first book in the series, there is a lot left unsaid.

The characterisation was, frankly, perfect. Robin was supremely likeable; she was smart and intuitive, and she had an enthusiasm for the job, a secret joy in the detective work. Cormoran Strike, meanwhile, was an absolutely brilliant character - one of the best I've read this year. He was stoical; he kept going, not complaining about the demons looming from the past. He didn't fit the stereotype of the cool, sharp, BBC Sherlock, James Bond-esque detective/spy; he was a fresh and excellent character. I loved him.

The book left me: engrossed in its world, with an intensity that I'd expect from a fantasy novel; slavering for the next one (The Silkworm); and amazed that I'd waited so long to read it. You know those Best Books lists we make at the end of the year? The Cuckoo's Calling will be featuring. It has cured me of my JKR hangover. No, it wasn't Harry. But nothing is Harry. The Cuckoo's Calling was gripping, superbly characterised and full of the plot twists and turns of a master. An absolutely top notch read. 

Do you, too, suffer from author hangovers? Anything you're too scared to read, in case it ruins your favourite author for you?

Emily x