Review: Winter by Ali Smith

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As with all of Ali Smith’s work, Winter is couched in deceptively simple prose, lulling the reader into a sense that this will be a straightforward tale of loss and redemption. And while it is both of those things, it is also a charged, complex and astoundingly beautiful meditation on the way, as a society, we stake out ideological battle lines; on the relationship between art and nature, the fake and the real; on our attitudes to the environment and on our obsession with technology.

This is the second part of Smith’s seasons quartet, and as might be expected there is thematic overlap with Autumn, most saliently perhaps in the references to memory and loss. One particular character is also referenced, who may well prove to be a link throughout the series. The story pivots around the relationship between two women: Sophia, a self-made business woman in her sixties, and her older sister Iris who has been a lifelong defender of the environment and human rights. Ideologically worlds apart, the sisters have grown to despise each other’s life choices; Iris living in a commune and protesting at Greenham Common while Sophia emerges almost as the model Thatcherite business woman, building up her small empire of department stores. Sophia’s son Arthur is the casualty in this family war: a sensitive child who has been severed from his roots and left to fend for himself at a private boarding school. As an adult, he seems to live life in proxy via his blog on which he posts fictional encounters with the natural world.

The feud played out between Sophia and Iris mirrors in microcosm those social and ideological fractures which often seem insurmountable on a broader, social level and the book widens its references to take in Brexit, the Bosnian conflict and the Second World War. Yet Winter ultimately considers the potential for healing and reconciliation even in the most unlikely of circumstances. It is a book which refuses to take sides, and which foregrounds dialogue and the understanding of difference as key to a future which will rise above and beyond the hatreds of the past.

Winter is a novel which confirms Ali Smith’s status as one of the greatest living British novelists – she was recently placed first in a TLS poll of academics and authors (theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/05/). I am always grabbed by the playfulness of her writing: her love of invention combined with her unquenchable curiosity, and the way her sentences seem to feed off and into each other. Reading Winter for the first time, I felt I was only scraping at the surface of the story, and I am certain that this is a book I’ll be revisiting on more occasions in the future.

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The First Fight Chapter Two: Excerpt

Sooner or later, Halanya, you’ll fall so far that my spies will make no difference. The city itself will turn against you. 

As mentioned last week, I started posting my short story “Hal: The First Fight” in full on Wattpad as it will – eventually – have some steamier scenes in it which probably wouldn’t be appropriate on my blog. Here’s an excerpt from today’s chapter and a link following it if you’d like to read the whole thing:

the first fight

Heat now baked the streets of Colvé and the city stirred like a restless, angry dog, ready to snap at her heels as she plunged down the hill from the palace and back towards the duelling academy, aware that she’d promised Beric to be back by noon. But the main square was a heaving, confused mass of people and passing amongst them was like swimming against a tide. Hal squeezed through the crowds, her hand to her belt, aware now more than ever before of the hidden threats of cutpurses and thieves.

“Hal?”

Her blood quickened at the call of her own name, and she turned in surprise. “Orla!”

The soldier was sitting by the fountains which looped and cascaded at the heart of the square. Hal bent to drink, splashing her face with cool water, ridding the palace from her skin and hair. She rose, aware of Orla’s gaze, and of Cara’s words which still reverberated through her head. Unnatural. Freakish. Was that how others saw her?

“You look tired duellist,” Orla said at last.

Hal bit her lip. “I’m alright.”

There was no trace of that arrogant air which Orla had carried at The Emperor, but her eyes betrayed a bitter, desperate hunger which stirred something in Hal: a curious fusion of desire and fear. The soldier put an arm to Hal’s shoulder. “Perhaps you’d care to continue your exploration of Riverside?”

Orla’s touch was like the first heavy fall of rain in a summer storm. Hal sucked in her breath. “I have to practice, Orla. I promised my duelling master…”

The hunger vanished and Orla’s lips sealed into a hard sneer. “Well if you must, you must.”

“It’s not…it’s not that I don’t want to.”

“Run along, now Hal. Back to the academy. Back to the Circle. Or perhaps the palace?” Orla’s voice cut like a blade. “Anywhere you feel safe.”

She recalled her encounter with they spy. “Nowhere is safe, Orla.”

Hal tore away from the fountains, pushing on again through the crowds back to Beric’s insults, back to the hard, bare boards of the academy and the ring of steel. She would close the door, she would pick up her sword and fight. And Colvé would vanish from sight for a few more hours.  

Full Chapter: https://www.wattpad.com/565995741-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story-chapter-two

 

Hal: The First Fight

the first fight

Hal is young, naive and hungry for adventure: a former ward of the imperial court who has exchanged aristocratic privilege for the life of a professional duellist. A chance encounter with a thief leads her into the dangerous underworld of Riverside, and to Orla – a battle-weary soldier. Passions flare as summer heat bakes the city streets. But Orla is fierce and possessive in her love. Will Hal survive it? Find out in The First Fight, a short story…

OK so slight alteration to my plans with regard to The First Fight: I am publishing the first chapter on Wattpad, and you can now read that here:

https://www.wattpad.com/story/145657002-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story

However, I decided – for the time being – against publishing it on my blog. This is because WordPress require that mature content be reported as such, which would then severely curtail what I could do with my blog in terms of appearing on reader lists etc. As I’m aware of the sensitivity surrounding this issue, I decided to make it exclusive to Wattpad – for the time being. I expect to publish it elsewhere and in other forms in the future.

The story will be somewhat darker and will have  more erotic content than anything else I’ve ever written. This is not a direction I’m taking in general with my writing – it just seemed to fit the mood of this piece.

If you’d like to get an idea of what it’s like – and the first two chapters will be pretty mild – then I’ve posted a sample below.

***

“Duellist, eh?” Orla stretched her arms along the backrest of the bench, and folded her right boot over her left knee. The languid drawl of her voice, the way she took up space as if it were owed to her – it all came across as a kind of challenge. “On the Circle? With the men?” her eyes hinted at contempt.

Hal swallowed, unsure of how much care she should take: of whether to answer the implied insult with her own, or to bite back her words. “Yes,” she said, steadying her voice. “Accounted one of the best.” Unaccustomed to self-praise, she downed a hurried mouthful of ale.

“Ha!” Orla barked. “Duellists. Players. Actors. Entertainers.” And the look she threw at Hal was a clear challenge.

This time, Hal struggled to hold back the irritation which pressed against her sides, struggling for release. “What do you mean?”

She caught the anxious glance which passed between Jools and Kris but ignored it, transfixed by Orla’s cool, contemptuous gaze.

“I mean that’s what it is. A show. If you want to prove your mettle, duellist…if you want to show me you can really fight, come down to the barracks. I’ll give you a duel which will have you running back to your duelling master in tears.”

So she was a soldier. “Why would I want to prove anything to you?” She leaned forward, her heart racing. Something about this whole exchange had shifted or altered: she felt the change but couldn’t place it. And in the slight gestures that Orla now made: in the way her shoulders shifted and the fine muscles of her cheeks flexed…in the way her eyes hinted almost at a kind of hunger, she knew that the soldier sensed it too.

“You’re right.” Orla pulled out a slim clay pipe, dangling it from her lips as she hit strike to flint and lit it. She closed her eyes, drawing down a mouthful of smoke which she exhaled directly at Hal. “You don’t need to prove anything to me. But to yourself? Now that’s another matter.”

Silence balanced between them as Orla smiled, waiting for her words to hit home, and Hal fought against the urge to lunge: to seize the soldier by her shoulders and shake her. They’d only just met and here she was goading, pressing, prying: with no true knowledge of who Hal was or the decisions she’d made, the risks she’d taken.

 

Interview: Lesfic Reading Group, Facebook

One of the great things about social media is the way it has brought authors and readers together like never before. I experienced this first hand on Saturday when I got the chance to participate in an online author interview hosted by K’Anne Meinel of the lesfic reading group on Facebook. You can find the group here at: 

https://www.facebook.com/groups/lesficbooks/.

As this is a closed group only members were able to participate, but K’Anne very kindly agreed to my posting some of the questions and my responses on my blog.

I should point out that this was not a typical interview. Over a two hour period, other members of the group asked me questions about my books, writing and related subjects. My responses were therefore sometimes a bit rushed and there may be a few typos here and there. I have slightly altered one or two responses for purposes of clarification.

The experience was great – in spite of being anxious to begin with, it became a really fun Q&A session. The group is a friendly, safe space to discuss lesfic and I  really recommend it. 

How did the genesis for The Duelist Trilogy come about?

Aw I knew this question was going to come up…so you’re all probably going to think I’m a bit freaky – which is true – but I seemed to have been carrying the idea for the main character, Hal, around in my head for ever. And I had no idea that she was going to turn into a book. But one day, just to almost exorcise her, I sat down and started writing her story and an entire book came out of it. The problem with Hal is that the more I write, the more she seems to come back. I keep thinking, that’s it. I’ve reached peak Hal, but no…another story pops out at me

No outline? Just sat in front of your computer and wrote the book?

Kind of. It surprised me to be honest! It is a bit of a patchy way to write because you forget things as you’re going and then you’re like damn! I need to go back and change things now. But for some reason it just worked and I can’t explain it to this day.

After working with Hal and your Duelist Trilogy, how weird was it to go to The Firefarer and start another? Will this too be a trilogy?

Yeah really weird. I decided that I had to do something different because I didn’t want to be a kind of one trick pony. I felt that I wanted to challenge myself by writing something that was more complicated in terms of narrative structure, world building, characterisation etc. So I forced myself and this time I had to do some real planning and…it hurt! But I’m glad I went for it and yes, this will be another trilogy. I’m writing part two – The Fresco and the Fountain at the moment.

What made you decide to go with Firebound instead of self-publishing or a bigger publisher?

So I knew this one would come up too, and it’s quite a long story. But basically, I wrote Hal or most of it and then stuffed it in a drawer and tried to forget about it. I wasn’t that bothered about publishing it – I just wanted it out of my system and I really didn’t want to go down the route of trad publishing because…well you know. All the rejection letters etc. But then I decided that I might as well share it online, so I posted it on the online writing platform Wattpad and it got quite a lot of views and was eventually featured. That was when fellow Wattpad author Rob May stepped in – we were critiquing each other’s work and he already had the idea of starting the imprint Firebound on Amazon so he asked me if I’d like to try publishing too. I thought, what the hell. Might as well. Now I’m pretty glad I did.

Why lesbian fiction? Mainstream fiction makes a lot more money…

that is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The story was just…lesfic. I never thought about money. I just had a story to tell and I wanted to get it out there. Really, writing lesfic gives me the opportunity to think about my own sexuality. To explore it. It’s perhaps self-indulgent but I can’t imagine writing anything else.

Who is your favorite lesfic author? Who do you read? Who is your favorite ‘mainstream’ author? What do you read? What’s in YOUR Kindle/e-reader?

So I got into lesfic by reading Sarah Waters who is both mainstream and a fantastic writer of lesbian historical fiction – and I think that, having read a lot of comments from group members in the past, Waters was also one of many people’s first encounters with lesfic. I mean she is amazing – in terms of the complexity of her work, the twists she throws in, the compassion she has for her characters. Absolutely love it.

I’ve discovered loads of new authors from this group and the lesbian review website, however – people like Jae and Heather Rose Jones who I might not have come across otherwise. Love their work, also Jen Silver and Riley LaShea. There is so much out there and so little time!

As for general reading – I’m very into contemporary British lit. So people like Hilary Mantel, Jessie Burton, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan. Love that. And I love all writers who push at the boundaries of their genre – I just read Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. This is so what science fiction should be – a young, African female protagonist. We need more of those kinds of characters in speculative fiction

What is your greatest fear as an author?

hard disk crash lol – I really am bad at backing up my files. But apart from that – I don’t have any real fears. If people didn’t buy my books, I’d still write because I can’t not write. Which might be a weird thing to say, but it’s how I feel. For a while I thought it must be normal to write – that everyone was up to it, until a close friend disabused me of that idea. So I honestly can’t say where it comes from but I’m never going to stop.

How do you choose the names for your characters?

So I’m a bit of a Shakespeare fan – which is where Hal came from. But what I tried to do with the Duellist trilogy was to mix up various languages – some old English sounding names with more French styles. My fear however, is that I’m inadvertently going to name a character after a cleaning product or something like that. Hal’s lover is called Meracad, for example, and I’m convinced one day I’ll find out that’s actually a brand of toothpaste.

Where in the world are you?

Well it might surprise you to hear that I’m in sunny Poland. I say sunny because I understand you’ve been having a little trouble with your weather in the mid west recently and I thought I’d just rub that in  😉

I’ve been here in Poland for about 15 years now. I came for a few months to teach English…and just somehow kind of stayed. And for all the country’s problems – and it has more than its fair share – I love it here, and I absolutely love teaching English. I applied for a teaching position – a short term contract and got it. The accommodation was thrown in so I didn’t have to worry about it. Poland is a great country, really. I felt at home here straight away.

As a teacher, how old are the students are you teaching English to?

That’s the great thing – they’re every age! I mostly teach undergradates, who are fun – really. But I have a lot of private students who range from tiny kids to lawyers and doctors. It’s just the best way of meeting so many different people .

Do you plan to ever move back to England or are you staying in Poland?

Really can’t see it happening. For various reasons, I decided to put a bit of distance between myself and England. And while I love the country – especially north Derbyshire which is where I’m from, I have everything I want here in Poland. I started writing properly here, I’ve got a job I love and a partner. The only thing that makes me anxious is bloody Brexit. But let’s not go there…

How supportive was your family when you started writing? Do they know? Have they read you?

So my family know that I do it but they just think it contributes to my general weirdness. But anyway, as I may have observed elsewhere, I believe you should never write stuff safe enough for your parents to read. The thought of my mum reading Hal…

Pseudonym or not, what was your rationale?

I’m going to come across as a real coward now. Pseudonym yes. While I love Poland it’s not the most forgiving of places so I write under a pen name. I really don’t want my students reading my work. Having said that, one of them cunningly tracked me down and said she enjoyed it so I guess perhaps I’m worrying unnecessarily. But paranoia has always been my default position 😉

What are you working on right now?

So I’m working on part Two of The Artist Enchanters series ‘The Fresco and the Fountain.’ It’s proving to be a bit of a hard write though, which is why I got distracted by a short story which I’m planning to post on my blog and on Wattpad. This will be a kind of prequel to Hal. (First Chapter of this will be on my blog on Thursday) 

How much of your book is written in long-hand until you start typing it out?

Loads. I have like reams and reams of notebooks and I can’t bring myself to throw them away. The only problem is that my handwriting is appalling so it takes me a while to decipher it myself before I can actually type stuff up 😉

What is your story? Are you a lesbian? Have you ever come out?

So this is a complex one. I define as bisexual. I fell in love for the first time with another girl, and that was hard. Unrequited, you know? So rather than contemplating my sexuality at the time, all I could do was obsess about the fact that she didn’t love me back (story of my life). Anyway, after I left home I had relationships with men and women and I figured that sexuality kind of works along a spectrum. And that’s why – as I noted elsewhere – one of the best ways for me to think about my sexuality is through writing.

What is your biggest distraction when you write?

I am so easily distracted. Obviously the internet. That is the main thing, which is why I try to write by hand first so that I focus. But once I’m typing up, if I see amusing cat photos, I’m out for the rest of the day 😉

What would you like to see happen with your writing in say five years?

I would really like to be a better writer in terms of the way I deal with structure, with just being generally better at handling twists. I’ve also got plans for writing a work of historical fiction which would require a lot of serious research so that’s where I’m headed.

 

 

 

Writing updates – The First Fight

Just a heads up to let people know – I had an idea for a short story which might work as a kind of mini prequel to Hal. It will focus on Hal and on her stormy relationship with Orla so it’s going to be a lot darker and probably – warning – more of an erotic piece than any of the other things I’ve written in the series.

If you like the sound of that, I’ll be posting it here on my blog in (hopefully) weekly installments and also on Wattpad. So watch out for part one of The First Fight this week!

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Review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

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Review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

Hild is a complex, beautiful weave of words: a novel which threads life into a distant past, revealing it to be at once distant and strange while at the same time hauntingly recognisable. For as the author Nicola Griffith states in her afterword: “While people in Hild’s time may have understood their world a little differently from how we understand ours, they were still people – as human as we are. Their dreams, fears, political machinations, fights, loves and hesitations were shaped by circumstance and temperament.”

It is perhaps the story’s bidirectional dynamic which fuelled my fascination. Here are people who are motivated by power, by perceptions of who is ‘kin’ and who is ‘other’ – we could easily find points of comparison between this world view and our own modern conceptions of national identity. Yet at the same time, Griffith portrays the British Isles at a period of massive upheaval: both religious and political. And these are changes on an almost seismic level which will completely alter the cultural fabric of these islands.

At one point, Hild presents the Irish Priest Fursey with a copy of the psalms and he describes it as a ‘palimpsest’. I take this to be the best analogy for the Britain that Griffith represents – a territory which has been staked out, re-imagined and rewritten by so many groups of people – Roman, Celtic and Anglisc, the future up for grabs and the present constantly shifting beneath their feet. It was this aspect of the book which particularly engaged me: the realisation of just how complex and volatile Hild’s world was. The best writers of historical fiction help us to read history from back to front – to understand the contingencies and accidents which got us where we are today. And this is exactly what Hild does.

Hild herself is a figure of great ambiguity, and the disparate narratives of this story all seem to coalesce in her person as the arch weaver, the perceiver of patterns. Her father Hereric is destined to be king, but is poisoned when Hild is a child. Together with her mother and sister she is taken into the household of king Edwin, her Uncle, and learns to navigate the turbulent and dangerous waters of the Deiran court from an early age. She is at once trusted seer to the king, and mistrusted ‘hægtes’ or witch, as comfortable amongst the British speaking wealhs as amongst the Anglisc speaking nobility. She makes the transition from Paganism to Christianity, she loves both men and women. She is, in short, the ultimate ‘passing’ character, a woman who wields a masculine form of power and who lives by her wits.

Hild is a book which confirms – in my mind – that we are living through a golden age of historical fiction: that the genre is challenging our concepts of the past and our relationship with it in ways that conventional historiography never can. It’s a demanding read, but I closed it with the feeling that I would have loved to linger just a while longer in Hild’s complex, brutal, beautiful world.