#Readers Resources: Read Across the UK

I recently came across Read Across America Day and thought, wouldn’t it be a great idea to have the same over here in the United Kingdom? I did check – and we don’t. So, I thought I’d get the ball rolling by suggesting a few candidates for you to read on that day, whenever you choose to celebrate it.

One huge problem is I can’t get away with only suggesting books to cover England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, when there’s all the regions and conurbations within those individual countries with riches to offer. No matter what, as it’s impossible to cover every option in one post, I’m just going to start – with the aim of re-visiting this subject on a regular basis.

Scotland: Glasgow
Shuggie Bain, 2020’s Booker prize-winner from Douglas Stuart has been described variously as dark and funny, beautiful and brutal. It is the tale of a gay boy and his alcoholic mother growing up in Glasgow, living a life of poverty on benefits. Despite being the “queer son of a single mother who lost her battle to addiction” himself, Stuart is quick to point out that he is not Shuggie. A long-time Booker fan, this is on my TBR list, although I’m waiting for a time when the world feels brighter than it does at present.

Scotland: Edinburgh
A quick jump from literary prize winner to bestseller – with Ian Rankin’s Rebus detective novels, which generally take place in Edinburgh or its environs. John Rebus, a detective with a thirst for whiskey, displays a level of commitment to the job which means he’s not the best husband or father. We shouldn’t blame Rankin for this, for stereotypes are often accurate reflections of the status quo. Featuring in 25 novels, the latest of them being A Song for the Dark Times, this one has Rebus – who now suffers from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) – travelling to the northern towns of Aberdeenshire. On screen Rebus has been portrayed by John Hannah and Ken Stott – both portrayals I’ve much enjoyed. I’ll admit I’ve chosen the screen over the books in this case, but imagine the state of my TBR if I’d not made that choice 🙂

Scotland: Highlands
Graeme Macrae Burnett’s His Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae was shorlisted for a Booker prize in 2016. This being the first on this list I have read, I can tell you that it is well-written, with a real sense of time and place. The tale of a crofter, it depicts the dirt, the constant grinding hard work and, most important of all, the vulnerability to those in positions of power. I was in no doubt that Roddy was guilty, but book is presented as a piece of historical research, so left me with a frustratingly incomplete ending. Don’t let this fact put you off though…

I’ve read a fair number of books based in the Republic of Ireland, but the North is entirely unrepresented, except in my TBR list, which includes the following.

Northern Ireland: Belfast
As a sucker for a Booker winner, Milkman from Anna Burns heads them. This satirical tale of the troubles, never naming either the place or the people, is generally taken to be Belfast during the Troubles. Seen through the eyes of a literature loving teenager who has to deal with the unwanted attentions of a paramilitary many years her senior (who she names milkman), in this place of secrecy, gossip and hearsay, contemporary history is re-written as dystopia. Again, I may be waiting for a brighter world in which to pick this up.

Northern Ireland: Border Country
Michael Hughes’ Country being compared to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was enough to ensure it appeared on my decidedly overloaded TBR. One review pointed out that as the author is also an actor, we would find this a work filled with the sound of a rhythmic speaking voice – yet another big tick for me. Set in the border country post-ceasefire in 1996, there are parallels drawn between the characters of Hughes’ IRA gang and those in Homer’s Iliad.

For this section, I’ve selected a couple on my TBR from contemporary Welsh authors rather than the classics.

Wales: Rhondda Valley
A collection of short stories whose title has links to Kurt Cobain jumped out, and it turns out there are elements of rock ‘n roll in the tales of dirty and druggy Welsh youth, alcoholic mothers and wayward daughters to be found within the pages of Rachel Trezise’s Fresh Apples. Described as gritty and thought provoking, raw and uncomfortable, with stories sometimes so touching, then leaving you cold and indifferent – it sounds like more than press hype that these stories may well be a must-read for a glimpse of Wales today.

Wales (and beyond)
My next choice is really a rather modern day memoir, as it weaves personal history with a meditation on what it means to belong. The author, Professor Charlotte Williams, has been appointed by the Welsh Government to ensure their school curriculum gives pupils the opportunity to understand difference and diversity – something her background as the child of a white Welsh speaking mother and a black Guyanese father makes her uniquely well-placed to do. Displaying an ear for dialogue, Williams uses both prose and poetry in Sugar and Slate to describe her travels in Africa, Guyana and Wales, as she examines her complex cultural loyalties and mixed-race identity. This one sounds especially up my street and has just leapt up my TBR list 🙂

England: Stratford-upon-Avon
Hamnet from Maggie O’Farrell was a favourite read of mine from last year and is a marvellous re-imagining of Shakespeare’s family. Taking place almost entirely in Stratford-upon-Avon, we’re told a tale of a couple of bullies – one male, one female – with both the bard and his wife having to adjust, before finding a way to remove themselves. Although it’s the bard who’s famous, this is a tale of family life, so it’s his wife who’s the central character. Older than Will, with strange and unusual powers, she remains at home to care for their 3 children when their youngest daughter develops breathing difficulties, making life in a city impossible – even then. Yet, it’s their son who dies. The differing manner in which Will and his wife respond to that loss is movingly beautiful to read.

England: The Fens
The Nine Tailors from Dorothy L Sayers was my second Lord Peter Wimsey book. Stranded in a small town in the fens, Wimsey spends New Year with the local rector & his wife. The rather splendid local church has a famed collection of bells, and Wimsey steps in to save the day for an epic record-breaking ring. While there, he hears how the local gentry became impoverished following the theft of an emerald necklace. This is a tale of twists and turns, of thinking you’d worked out the murderer, only to discover that you hadn’t. When you do find out whodunnit, it’ll be a surprise – for if you work this one out ahead of Wimsey, you’re quite the sleuth. With lovely descriptive passages of the fenland and sympathetic rendering of local village folk – the kindly but rather scatty rector with a passion for bell ringing, being but one.

England: London
I’m cheating slightly here by suggesting two series – Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books & the Cormoran Strike books from Robert Galbraith. What both series have in common is their central characters are both detectives – one a policeman investigating the “unusual”, the other a private detective and ex-military policeman firmly rooted in reality. Both are also based in central London (with odd forays further afield). Aaronovitch displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of his beloved city and, so vivid and detailed are his descriptions, that London itself feels like a key member of the cast of characters. In contrast, the West End of London is simply where Galbraith’s detective lives and works, but Galbraith does nicely juxtapose the grime and the glitter of the area in the tales. I’ve read both series and found them most enjoyable.

While researching the massive array of options, I’ve uncovered some absolute beauties to topple my TBR pile, but still please add your suggestions of potential reading material for future editions of Read Across the UK.

© Debra Carey, 2021


#SecondThoughts: Historically accurate female characters

I’ve been watching “Life on Mars” – the time travel (or is it) tale of a detective from the 2000s who finds himself back in 1973 after being hit by a car. Much is made of the changes in attitude between now and then – the everyday misogyny and racism for example, the casual violence and the “fit ‘em up” attitude of making sure the bad guys go down even if they aren’t guilty of the crime they’re being framed for. Of course, there’s also the use (or not) of science, forensics, and the (lack of) availability of databases for use in investigation, let alone the cars and the fashion.

I’d not seen it before, but remember all the chat at the time of Gene Hunt (the boss cop) being a popular character – full of banter and prejudice, cocky and loud-mouthed, on the take but basically decent. Indeed, it was so well loved, the actor even went to reprise the character in television advertisements.

In the 30 years between the 1970s and the 2000s, the contrast in attitude was marked. We’re now an additional 20 years on and we’ve not stood still – especially in the world of gender identity. Earlier this year, we had a nationwide census here in the UK where there was much discussion over whether the standard gender question would be expanded from the two traditional options. In the end, they included an optional additional question as a work-round, which probably pleased no-one. Regardless of the view you hold about gender identity, it is a major issue of the 2020s which could – even should – have been properly captured for posterity within the census.

When seeing the change in the area of gender within the last 50 years, what about the changes in the 20-30 years before that? The second world war brought many changes in this area. Women did men’s work while the men went to fight. When the men came back, some women were happy to return to their old lives, others were not, and the seeds of the women’s liberation movement were surely sown.

Our story, The November Deadline, is set in the late 1940s, when it was still a most different world to the one we live in now. In order to remain believable yet able to include a couple of strong female characters (one primary, one secondary), our task has been made easier by dint of their being from a different – matriarchal – culture.

Lady Michaela is skilled at navigating life with a foot in each world, while Juliet has yet to learn those skills. Michaela’s confident manner could be considered inappropriate or out of place were she not also the possessor of a title, but it remained important for us to demonstrate the practical means which would permit her to work in a traditionally male environment – engineering. Despite it being an area in which she is highly skilled, her financial independence is important, but it’s her friendship with Jack which provided her an out-of-sight workshop in which to pursue her passion.

Juliet (spoiler alert) is being trained to have a most unusual life – different in every way from that of the normal young woman in the late 1940s. She will have to learn quickly that not all men are like those who train her. Isaac, laid back and quietly spoken, will hopefully be able to teach her interpersonal skills alongside those of self-defence, armed and unarmed combat. Her hot temper will doubtless cause conflict with the more typical 1940s male she will encounter, and it will take the combined skills of all her trainers to fully prepare her to meet that task.

But what’s kept it real was David’s introduction of the minor character of Viv. Viv is a more typical female character of the time – a traditional stay at home mother who’s had to go out to work when her husband is posted as missing during the war – and through her we’ve been able to introduce some of the social history of the time. London – the east end in particular – has such a proud history from the war years that it would be a crime not to weave it into our tale in some way.

Our book is a work of fiction, but I believe that incorporating historical details, including those of social history, helps to keep it feeling real. Or maybe that’s just my excuse – for uncovering what was there then which isn’t now, has been a fascinating and most enjoyable work of research.

© Debra Carey, 2021

#FlashFiction: Now with Added SciFi – the stories

From DebsI’m a science duffer, and while I enjoy reading science fiction and SciFi (with space opera being a particular favourite at the moment) my story is a bit like me…

“I thought this was a creative writing class – why is the reading list wholly science-based?”

Melissa’s hand had been up for quite a while before the tutor got round to her. She spotted his eyes roll and the unmistakably brusque tone in his response.

“If you’d read the syllabus notes in advance, you’d have noticed the first piece of writing is going to be science fiction, and the one thing that will ensure you alienate your readers is if you get the science wrong. That list also includes successful authors, who’ll showcase how to do it well.”

“But the module is entitled Research. Oh… I see.” Melissa started to argue, before tailing off in a shamefaced manner.

The class broke up in a buzz of excitement, for all but Melissa were geeks or nerds, appearing to be well in their element with this one. Melissa, with aspirations of writing literary fiction, felt like the proverbial fish. The rest of the day passed in a blur of self-pity and disappointment, so Melissa felt positively entitled when she picked up that bottle of wine despite it being a school night. Pouring her first glass as she threw together a pasta dish, she multi-tasked as was her wont by checking her email. To her surprise, there was one from the creative writing tutor.

“I wanted to re-assure you it’s pure bad luck you’re the only non-science person in the class as the first module on this course has always been a piece of science fiction. I know you won’t feel it now, but you’ve actually got the best chance of high marks. What you need to do is to demonstrate you know how to use research in your writing. Honestly, most of the others will think they know enough and wing it, whereas my marking will be based on what each of you make of the same research materials. And yes, that fact is also in the syllabus notes.”

Melissa put her wine glass down in a hurry to read the syllabus notes properly, before logging into the campus library. Swearing under her breath, she saw he was right on both counts. And no-one else had booked the items on the reading list, despite there being multiple copies of each. Putting the wine bottle away, she resolved to drive the next day rather than having to lug the pile of reading material home on the bus.

Home again, she started with fiction, and was surprised to find one of the offerings absolutely engrossing. Yes, it was science, but the story had great characters and a good plotline. Melissa began to see a glimmer of belief. She might be able to produce something which showcased her own preferred style, but in a science fiction setting.

Her joy ended all too quickly when she came crashing down to earth after reading the non-fiction. There was so much which went over her head, it was all such dense learning and she felt utterly overwhelmed.

Taking herself out for a walk to get away from the wine bottle, she pondered how on earth she was going to choose what area of science to incorporate into her work… when she remembered. The first work of fiction she’d read had been unremarkable, but she was sure it was in there. Rushing home to re-read it, Melissa gave a little “yes!” before stopping to make tea for fuelling a long session of copious note making. She was right, she had spotted a McGuffin – one she thought she might just be able to use.

Checking the author hadn’t written anything more on the subject, Melissa threw herself into outlining her tale. Her story would be a prequel, ending where the McGuffin is uncovered in the original book… but with entirely different characters, a plotline, and maybe even a timeline of its own. Of course, she had to ensure that her story would lead seamlessly into the already published work, for the link between her world and that of the published work would need to be believable.

On the reading list, Melissa found was a fascinating book on worldbuilding, quickly becoming buried in creating the world her characters would inhabit. Religion, culture, clothing, politics, geography, geology, gender identity, hobbies, transport, education – nothing escaped her. As she researched each subject, she found ideas for building the direction her plot would take.

As she developed her plot, she kept returning to the original ethos – her storyline mustn’t jar with that of the published work, it mustn’t be a copy, but it must have a believable link. Whenever Melissa faced a conflict in what direction to take her story, she returned to this important requirement.

Slowly but steadily, Melissa saw how it would work. Producing a detailed plot and full character profiles, she wrote the beginning and the ending. Now she just had to make sure she had enough understanding of the science for the middle. It would be a struggle, but she was fortunate in having an entire class filled with geeks and nerds at hand, most of whom had appeared terribly keen to display their cleverness to her.

Melissa smiled. This could work.

© Debra Carey, 2021

From David – I’d probably be one of the nerds and geeks in Melissa’s class who would try to wing it, if I’m honest, although Debs will tell you that I’m also likely to go digging after a detail to ensure verisimilitude – I hate unintended anachronsims! Creatively, I’m in a funny place at the moment, so I hope you’ll indulge me in the fact that I’ve written two shorter pieces rather than one longer one. I think they both meet the brief. I’ve put the slightly more dystopian one first, and the absurdist one second…

Testing times

The alarm goes off.  Just once I’d like to be able to say that with enthusiasm.  I spit onto a fresh test, spike a finger with another and head to the bathroom.  They say that it doesn’t really matter when you do it, but I figure it’s best to get it out of the way early.  It’s not like it’s a treat to hold on for.  Once or twice, when I was younger, I tried to get out the door without doing the tests.  They’re supposed to be voluntary, after all, but the increasingly serious warnings as I delayed spooked me too much, and I caved in. 

I’ve timed my ablutions to perfection, thanks to experience.  I’ve no idea what the results are, but I touch the tests to my watch and it tells me what my meals for the day will be, what supplements to take, what exercise to do.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to catch something – not fatal obviously – and to see my meals emerge from the slot in the wall, but I’ve always been sickeningly healthy and so, as usual, I wend my way down to the hustle and bustle of the refectory.  All the adverts make them look glamourous and lively, try and get you to move to a new Residence on the basis of the great meals you’ll be served.  There’s only so much you can do with yeast and myco-protein though, and every refectory I’ve ever been a member of serves the same series of drudge-fare.  There are one or two choices on the menu that it’s worth getting excited for, but usually the biggest buzz about the menu is when they decide to change the order.  I’ve heard stories of places that added something new to their menu, but I think they’re just urban legends.  I’ve never met someone who’s seen a menu change, they’re only ever stories from a friend of a friend.

The refectory is still filling up at this time of the day.  I collect my tray and look for somewhere to sit.  Some people favour corner seats as there are fewer people around you, but I tend to avoid them as you get more people passing by.  There are a few seats though that are optimal.  My favourite has been taken, but my second favourite is free.  Some would see this as an omen for the day. 

There are rumours that refectories may have to bubble eating groups.  Idly, I wonder how one would ensure that you ended up with an optimal seat, how you would ensure that you had a good mix of chat-friends. How long before the lack of change would stultify conversation.  I wonder if they would allow changes to the bubbles over time? The self-elected table monitor is talking about an article they read of old villages, no more than 250 people, how the brain is wired to remember this many people and struggles with more.  I wonder what it would be like to know that many people so well.  I know more people than that – there must be at least a 1,000 people in the Residence alone, but how many of those do I know well?

I’m clearing my tray when the police-nurses file in and seal the room.  Such stories play out on the news every day, but again, never to anyone you know.  They call out a name.  It is the self-elected table monitor from a table on the other side of the refectory.  Something is jabbed in their arm and they are taken away, dangling between two police-nurses.  The remaining police nurses escort us back to our rooms, a table at a time.  Senior police-nurses sequester those closest to the person who has just been removed.

I miss the rest, but can imagine the process of testing and injecting, as our table is escorted out of the refectory and back to our rooms.  I’m handed a test kit, and the door is locked behind me.  It will open to the touch of the test – if all is well.

I’ll have a story to tell, maybe.  I wait for the results.

Designer Pets

“So what are you going to call it?” A useful phrase, in the right circumstances, although a less self-involved person would have noted the lack of enthusiasm and an overabundance of doubt.

“I had thought of ‘dig’ or ‘pog’, but I’m not really sure.  I think I’ll hand that over to the PR people and see what they suggest.

“Probably wise…although I think they might have some bigger issues to deal with first, like the fact that you’re not licensed as a genetic engineer, not anymore, not after, you know…”

“Details, details.  I couldn’t let all that expensive equipment sit around idle – “

“You could have sold it.”

“- and the point is, it worked!  The Institute will be begging to give me back my license!”

“Maybe…” Still more doubt than enthusiasm, to be honest.

The creature before me was, basically, a dog.  A very enthusiastic dog, with a long, licky tongue, and bottom that was shuffling back and forth as its tail whipped back and forth in a creditable attempt at a vertical take-off.

“I used a Labrador, to begin with, for obvious reasons, but the process would work with any dog type.  I can imagine it being popular with police forces and the military if we make the splice with Alsatians and Dobermans and so on, and we could make quite a cute handbag version for the fashionistas.”

I really wasn’t sure cute was a go-er.  One of the things that I notice about dogs is that they don’t have teeth, they have fangs.  The creature before me had tusks, not like an elephant but more like –

“Similarly, I used a Gloucester Old Spot for the pig part, but again we could probably use other types if there are other characteristics we want to go for.  I quite fancy trying to resurrect the Lincolnshire Curly Coat.  I shied away from wild boar-”

Uncharacteristically restrained of you, I thought.

“-but that might be good for the military version, perhaps.”

Ah, there we go.

“I feel like I’m missing something.  Does the world need a dog-pig or pig-dog or whatever this thing is?”  Its hard to use the word monstrosity when the thing in question is looking at you pathetically, licking your hand and drooling over your shoes.

“Ah, but here’s the really good bit!  It’s not just a dig or a pog or whatever we call it – it’s a living biorefinery!  You can feed it on just about anything organic, and some stuff that isn’t.  And then, you can tweak a few genes or the gut flora and it will produce whatever chemical you want.  Medicines, turpentine, alcohol, petrol, spider silk…”

“Forgive me, but aside from questions of scale, I really can’t see aspirin extracted from a pog’s backside catching on.  Further, can you imagine the havoc reeked by porco-canine produced illicit drugs?  And whilst it might be great that pigs will eat anything, pigs eat EVERYTHING.  I can’t see that being great round the home, frankly, not to mention all those mob hits and crazy farmers where they disposed of the body using porcine reclamation.”

The noise he made in response wasn’t quite rude, but was somewhere on the raspberry spectrum.

The creature looked up at me with pleading eyes.

© David Jesson, 2021

#IWSG: What would make you quit writing?

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. It’s an opportunity to talk about doubts and fears you have conquered. To discuss your struggles and triumphs and to offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling.

July 7 question – What would make you quit writing?

Honestly? Nothing short of physical impairment.

While I’m no different to any other writer in my hopes and dreams, I’m not sure I could stop writing, even if I knew those hopes and dreams were never to be fulfilled. It’s now such a huge part of my life, of who I am, I’d almost say of my DNA… all this despite having only started to write in my 6th decade.

I write not only because it gives me pleasure – I write to express myself, to work out feelings, to expel negative emotions, to engage with other lovers of the written word, to keep my brain sharp, to tell stories, to pull together an idea from spark to fruition.

Writing forms a massively important part of the process by which I support my mental health. If I didn’t write, I’m confident I’d cope with the tribulations of life less well. As well as giving me an outlet, it engages the creative side of my brain, providing a great form of relaxation and balance to my life, as my day job mostly involves almost entirely left-brain activity – not my favourite sort.

In short, I believe I will always write – even if only for myself.

Does writing play more than one role in your life?

The awesome co-hosts this month are Pat Garcia, Victoria Marie Lees, and Louise – Fundy Blue! – do take a moment to visit them.

While you’re here, can I tempt you with a #FlashFiction prompt?

Every month, we run a different #FF prompt and this month it’s based on a brilliant idea from fellow IWSG member James Pailly. A couple of years ago, James wrote a wonderful piece for us, which spawned both a new series for us, as well as a writing prompt.

We had great fun with this prompt last year and decided to reprise it. The basic premise is to take a story and simply #AddMoreSciFi. Whether it’s a new story you write in a SciFi environment, a twist in a seemingly non-SciFi tale, or a re-working of an old story in a new environment – work the prompt any way you like. If you fancy giving this a go, you’ll find the details here.

© Debra Carey, 2021

#FlashFiction Prompt: Now with Added Sci Fi

A little throw back to James Pailly’s post that kicked off our #NowWithAdded series. A simple enough premise: look around you, think about your life…what would the consequences be if something ordinary became a bit more SciFi?

Word count: Approximately 1,000 words
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday 11th July 2021

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line – you retain the copyright.

One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.