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‘When We Were Vikings’

Happy publication day to Andrew MacDonald with his debut novel ‘When We Were Vikings’!

Thanks to Simon and Schuster and Gallery Books for my Advance Reader Copy…

With a high-functioning young woman born on the fetal alcohol spectrum, planning to live life as if she’s a legendary Viking, I had an inkling this book would feel fresh and different. By the end it felt like ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ meets ‘Breaking Bad’, which you have to admit is kind of fascinating.

Zelda is learning how to gain independence, navigate romance and protect her tribe (which is particularly tricky as her older brother is getting increasingly involved in criminal dealings to keep them afloat). MacDonald presents a convincing sibling relationship and other characters feel well-drawn too: AK47, her brother’s on-off girlfriend who has taken Zelda lovingly under her wing; Dr Laird, in whom Zelda can confide; some of the people at the community center she attends, and Pearl, the mother of Zelda’s boyfriend, who is both delighted – if a little apprehensive – that her son has found young love.

When Zelda and her boyfriend Marxy, a developmentally disabled young man who attends the same Community Center, decide to become sexually active, the scene is written with an entertaining mix of humour and sensitivity. It’s one of the stand-out moments in the book and is likely to open up conversations about cognitively disabled adults gaining sexual intimacy – something that has sparked debate & concerns in many families over the years.

Don’t be fooled by the cover, this is an adult book. There are certainly dark and menacing moments for Zelda, which she fits into the narrative of a viking legend. This was quite different to other novels I’ve read. One to look out for at the end of January!

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NYC Midnight: a writing competition you’ve (almost) no chance of winning… so why bother?

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NYC Midnight 2020

I love ‘NYC Midnight’ and I’ll tell you why… 

The anticipation just before your category is released feels like preparing to go on a blind date, that’s going to last ALL weekend. Yikes! When they announce your challenge, it could be everything you hoped for and more – an all-consuming love affair with your favourite genre, where your charming words and wit or eerie, evocative prose will flow effortlessly. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll knock this flash fiction or short story out of the park!

Or…

Perhaps you’ll struggle to hide your disappointment, faced with a genre that doesn’t float your boat or obscure prompts that have you scratching your head. With your fountain of ideas initially running dry, you’ll desperately try to find some kind of spark, as it becomes clear this weekend will be a black hole that swallows you up. Goodbye family and friends! No fake phone call about your best buddy’s gall bladder emergency is going to rescue you from this writing date. You just have to sit down and thrash the damn thing out.

Either way, I promise it’s actually brilliant fun. 

The NYC Flash Fiction competition involves writing 1,000 words over a weekend, and the Short Story Challenge (about to begin) has a similar structure, with 4 heats in all. This is a competition where you sign up, along with roughly 5,000 other creative types around the world, and you’re placed randomly in heats.

The Annual Short Story Challenge begins this Friday at 11.59pm EST, (entry deadline Jan 16th). Writers will await the release of 3 things: a genre, a subject and a character assignment. There will be 8 days to write up to 2,500 words. Judges will choose a top 5 in each heat to advance to the next round, where writers will have 3 days to write 2,000 words and so on, with the time allowance and word limits reduced each round. With so many great writers taking part internationally, both seasoned and novice, the hard truth is even really high-scoring stories don’t guarantee their writers a place in the next round.

So why bother?  

You’re given personalised feedback from a few judges after every story you submit. It takes a while to come through, admittedly, but it’s useful if you want to make progress.

While you wait for their comments and to find out how many (if any) points you scored in your heat, you can embrace the review forum chats. Participants can post their efforts for review from fellow writers after submitting. The stories people come up with are so often fantastic! Some inspired me to work harder, practice my craft; some moved me, while others were a little rough around the edges, but showing great promise. It’s a learning curve for all of us taking part. If you love stories, there’s a great community of writers on hand and it’s up to you whether you’re comfortable posting your new piece up for all in the competition to see and comment on. Most people do – it’s good to get encouragement from your fellow writers and learn to take that constructive criticism on the chin! 

Stepping outside your comfort zone is challenging and refreshing. I never would have written about the things I did otherwise… Flash fiction 1: a crime caper, in a library, with a sprinkler. Flash fiction 2: a comedy, in a hall of fame, with a projector. 

There are cash and other prizes available for those who do make it to the final 10, but I’m in it to have fun and hone my skills. Besides, how often do you find something exhilarating these days?!

I wonder what the Short Story rounds will have lined up for me this month. Horror? Mystery? Sci-Fi? If you’re a budding writer, I hope to see your piece in the review forum! 

Let me know if you have any great tips for crafting a short story, or if there’s one you’ve read and especially loved!

Maybe you’ve had a short story published and you’d like to tell me about it in the comments!

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Book review

‘Queenie’ – Candice Carty-Williams

Ah Queenie, a character hitting self-destruct and making all the worst decisions for her mental (and physical) well being. I knew this was a voice I wanted to keep reading right from the gynaecology exam at the start.

Queenie is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman, struggling to hold it together. Cold-shouldered by her white boyfriend Tom, during their break, and with her self esteem at rock bottom, she spirals into a cycle of sexual encounters with increasingly terrible men.

All the while, Queenie tries to navigate her place at the newspaper culture supplement where she works. She’s frustrated at the apathetic reactions to her pitch to write about Black Lives Matter. (The bosses favour meaningless content). We meet her at a time she’s adrift in her job, and perhaps dangerously close to losing it, without the financial safety net some of her peers have.

Throughout the novel, I felt like a friend who’d been invited into Queenie’s world, as though I was one of ‘The Corgis’, an aptly titled WhatsApp group she sets up in order to connect with friends from different strands of her life.

The voice Candice Carty-Williams writes with is warm, fresh and conversational, like Queenie is gradually unpacking years of hurt that has led her to this point whilst taking us along on a rollercoaster ride. I love Queenie’s sharp humour and raw vulnerability.

Whilst the tone can be humorous, don’t be deceived by reviews that call this debut novel ‘breezy’. This is a writer who weaves in some pretty weighty subject matter with confidence, from race and gentrification to abuse and mental health.

At a local bookstore, I was lucky enough to listen to Candice Carty-Williams discuss her novel and attitudes towards counseling, particularly within the Jamaican community, with Nicola Yoon. She reinforced that more openness to discussing our mental health and seeking help is needed. One of my favorite, touching moments in the novel, is when Queenie’s Jamaican grandparents make their feelings on counseling clear, highlighting how tricky this openness can be.

Setting up ‘The Corgis’ was a useful way to illustrate how modern friends confide in and support one another when they aren’t there in person, allowing for instant reactions from friends with very distinct, convincing voices. I found her friendships especially relatable, so it was great to see their own connections forming during these entertaining 4-way conversations.

This was never going to be a romantic love story, in spite of numerous flings while pining for her ex. Perhaps it’s fair to say this more a story about self love and the power of friends and family when you’re trying to heal. I did find her decision-making almost relentlessly frustrating, but that’s really the point. She has to hit rock bottom and reasons for her behaviour patterns emerge.

For me, the book feels like a slice of home, but I still found the way the writer explores race a great eye-opener as a white British reader. This includes the casual racism of Queenie’s white boyfriend’s family, and some men’s attitudes to dating women of colour are highlighted. It was revealing to hear Carty-Williams discuss the difference in experience between her white and black female friends on dating sites. The exact same men sometimes used shockingly different voices (polite and gentlemanly vs crude and disrespectful) when talking to friends with different racial heritage – except the friends talked about these men and found out about it. This helped inform Queenie’s experiences with men in the book.

I’m so pleased to see the attention this writer is getting here, across the pond. In the crowded room in Brooklyn where I heard her talk, everyone found her to be graceful, honest and inspiring. It turns out even seeing the gorgeous cover in prominent positions in bookstores everywhere, has brought some people to tears. From conversations I’ve had, many women feel proud to see black female identity explored so honestly and embraced, not just in the UK, but certainly here in the US too. Representation matters!

Looking forward to discussing this one at my next book group. Grab a copy of ‘Queenie’ if you haven’t already and let me know what you think.

Book review

‘A Man Called Ove’ – Fredrick Backman

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 I love a black comedy! It turns out ‘A Man Called Ove’ was exactly the book I needed over the holidays – it made me feel fuzzy and sentimental, even shedding a few tears as I finished it, which I hadn’t expected when I first picked it up.

  A blue collar worker, Ove now finds himself out of work and alone, with neighbours intent on being as infuriating as possible. He struggles to understand the changing modern world, in which things that are functional, fixable and reliable don’t seem to be important. As Backman drip feeds us Ove’s back-story, (he has plenty of problems to throw at Ove over the years) he soon has us rooting for the grumpy old codger, and we reflect on how our experiences shape us.

  The story might be sweet and the writing has a lightness of touch, but the sharpness of Ove’s tongue and the dark undertones (it’s not a spoiler to say all Ove wants to do is kill himself in peace) stop it being too saccharine sweet.

  With warmth and humour, Backman has created a cast of characters you can invest in, especially sulky, rude but ultimately lovable Ove, and Parvaneh, the relatable, heavily pregnant, Persian neighbour who moves in across the street with her family.

  We all know a little kindness and understanding go a long way, and Backman’s novel encourages empathy without being preachy. This novel reminds us it’s good to reach out to one another, finding reasons to really live, rather than merely exist.

  You’ll enjoy it if… you love black comedies or books where a real sense of community and unlikely friendships emerge.

  What didn’t add up for me… I had the impression the cantankerous 59 year old was much much older. Maybe that was intentional, as if he has always seemed rather old for his years.

Let me know your thoughts, especially if you’ve watched the movie version (which I haven’t yet). Happy reading!