Book Review: Spin by K.J. Farnham

Sixteen-year-old Jenna Kemp is a typical high school girl, complete with a loyal group of friends and a seemingly understanding boyfriend. But when the demons from Jenna’s childhood resurface, she’s suddenly spinning out of control–drinking, partying–anything to numb the pain of the past. After distancing herself from her friends and befriending an outcast, her friends and family start questioning and judging her choices. 

But when Jenna doesn’t come home one night, her friends and family realize it’s more than just adolescent rebellion. Jenna’s mysterious disappearance proves that there’s more on the line than they realized. As they sift through a series of her personal diaries, the truth becomes terrifying. Will Jenna’s final diary entry reveal the greatest mystery of all–her whereabouts?

K.J. Farnham’s latest novel is a young adult story with a mystery at its heart. After reading and enjoying all of Farnham’s previous works, including her last YA novel Don’t Call Me Kit Kat, I was really looking forward to getting stuck into my copy of Spin, and I definitely was not disappointed. Spin is a pacey, edgy read which immediately grabbed me; a compulsive page-turner which kept me up way past my bedtime on the several nights it took me to read it.

The mystery of Jenna Kemp’s disappearance and whereabouts is pieced together in a narrative which moves between past and present, and between several different characters’ points of view. This jigsaw-building structure is complex but expertly crafted by Farnham, who uses this format to reveal the story gradually, weaving the details of Jenna’s life in the months before her disappearance in amongst the pain and confusion of her family and friends in the aftermath. I particularly like the way Farnham employs contrasting narratives and tenses as the story moves between the past and the present. For the reader, the use of first person and present tense gives a deep and immediate insight into the responses of Jenna’s loved ones, whilst the use of third person and past tense for Jenna’s part of the story keeps her, rather aptly, at arms length.

As in her previous YA work, Farnham’s Spin deals with some difficult topics, delving deeply into some complex emotional and mental health issues as Jenna’s story unfolds. Without wishing to give too much away about the plot (and therefore the mystery), I think that Farnham’s handling of this tough subject matter is commendable for its realism and sensitivity. The story pivots around a number of strong, well-drawn characters; all flawed in one way or another and not all likable, but all easily imagined as they play their various parts in steering the reader towards answering the question: where is Jenna Kemp? The answer, when it comes, is unexpected, shocking, and a fitting end to a very tough tale.

A gripping, suspense-filled read. Five stars.

Spin is available on Amazon UK now. To find out more about K.J. Farnham’s work, check out her website or Goodreads page. 

Book Review: The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick

Two lives. One night sky.

Róisín and François first meet in the snowy white expanse of Antarctica, searching for a comet overhead.

While Róisín grew up in a tiny village in Ireland, ablaze with a passion for science and the skies, François was raised by his restless young mother, who dreamt of new worlds but was unable to turn her back on her past.

As we loop back through their lives we see their paths cross as they come closer and closer to this moment, brought together by the infinite possibilities of the night sky.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t actually looking for something new to read when I came across this book. I was in a shop in town, browsing the books for my kids when my attention was caught by the adults section, and by a cover with two shadowy figures and a comet overhead. I picked it up, read the blurb and thought, ‘hmm, intriguing’. I wasn’t wrong.

This is a story which draws the reader in from the very start. Beautifully structured, each chapter loops through time and characters at a pace which is impressive but never confusing. The focus of the story is on Francois and Roisin, and those in their lives, past and present, and how they both arrive at a moment in Antarctica, gazing at the night sky.  Written in the third person present tense, each part of the story takes place when there is a comet visible overhead. As the reader comes to learn, the comets are the tethering link between all characters, the living and the dead.

If the well-structured plot drew me in, then it was the style which had me hooked. Sedgwick has a masterful ability to express a great deal of beauty in just a few words. Her poetic descriptions of comets and of the universe are clearly heartfelt, while the picture she paints of each character is deep and perceptive. All this results in a story which is sincere, engaging, and a considerable emotional rollercoaster for the reader. There are parts of this story which made me smile, and equally parts which made me feel as though I could weep. And I suppose that’s the point.

An impulse buy which I’m very glad I made. Five stars.

The Problem with Time

Last week my copy of the twentieth anniversary edition of Mslexia magazine dropped through the door. Mslexia, for those who haven’t heard of it before, is a quarterly magazine for women who write. I’ve been subscribing to it for some time now after it was recommended to me by a playwright friend of mine, and always find the topical articles, industry insights and showcases of writing enjoyable and often thought-provoking to read.

This quarter’s edition features an article which really resonated with me. It’s entitled ‘The Tests of Time’, and begs an important question. ‘Most women work a double shift, of day job and caring responsibilities,’ the writer Aki Schilz states. ‘So how are we to fit in a third shift of writing?’ Yes, I thought – how, indeed.

After reading the article, I began to think about my own life and the challenges to finding the space and time to write which I experience, and how well (or otherwise) I overcome these. Like so many women who write, I have work and family responsibilities. These responsibilities are never static; instead they evolve as, for example, children grow older and jobs change, and thus my writing practices too have had to adapt.

When I started writing my first novel, The Gisburn Witch, back in late 2013, my children were younger and I worked only at the weekends. This meant that on weekday evenings the children would be in bed by 7pm, leaving me a full evening to write. I wrote a lot in the evenings back then, and thinking back my routine was very fixed and predictable. I also had time in the day when my children were napping or at nursery to grab an hour or two to write. This routine is now a thing of the past: evenings are trickier as my kids go to bed later, often they have evening activities, and indeed I now have a different job with more varied hours and it’s not uncommon for me to be out at work in the evenings as well as during the day.

These days my writing routine has to be more fluid (I’m going to use that word as it sounds better than ‘erratic’). So, what impact does this have on my writing? Well, for one thing, it’s got progressively slower. Those who follow my blog regularly will know that I’m currently working on my forthcoming novel The House at Kirtlebeck End; it’s almost a year since I wrote the first chapter in that story and I’ve still got about another 40,000 words to write. Usually I aim to write a novel in around nine months – this is something I managed to do with A Woman Named Sellers and Ethersay, but in recent times it’s become apparent that this is no longer a realistic target.

I also find that having to be creative about carving out time makes getting into the right frame of mind for writing very hit or miss. There are days when I write a lot, when I feel good about what I’ve put down on the page and when I feel a sense of achievement. And there are other days when after everything else is done and I sit down to write, I either hate what comes out or, more often, I have to accept that it just isn’t happening, that I’m drained and I’ve nothing left with which to create. That’s frustrating and it’s hard because I feel then like I’m the barrier to my own work.

Of course, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Learning to be adaptable means that I’m very good now at writing anywhere. I don’t have to be in my own home or my own room to write, but I can comfortably take my laptop into a busy cafe or noisy soft play and just get on with it. When I’m in the right frame of mind for writing, I’m also better at using the time I do have to write, at getting myself immediately focused on the task of putting words on the page. Tiredness might be a problem, but procrastination isn’t.

On reflection, I think the key for me is to recognise that there are constraints and pressures on my writing time, and that those are things I cannot change, although those constraints themselves will evolve over time. What I can do, however, is value the time I do get, put it to best use, and focus on what I do manage to do, rather than fretting over what I didn’t do. And, on that note, I’m off to do some writing.

An Accidental Week

Happy Saturday! For me at least, it’s been something of a long week, but by no means an uneventful one. It’s also been a bit unlucky. Over the last seven days I’ve managed to hit myself in the face with an I pad resulting in a bit of a colourful right cheekbone (thank goodness for make up), and I’ve got yet another cold which has caused laryngitis. Yesterday evening I lost my voice completely; thankfully my voice seems to be coming back now but squeaking at my family is far from ideal!

Fortunately, my bad luck hasn’t affected my writing, which has been progressing well. This week I hit 65,000 words in my first draft of The House at Kirtlebeck End. I shared this teaser extract on social media:

I hope this has you intrigued! I’m really excited about this book and the more I write, the more I can’t wait to share it with you. I aim to have the first draft finished in the next couple of months.

I also took some time to catch up on how my other books are doing, and noticed that The Gisburn Witch has a new review on Amazon UK. It was lovely to see that a reader has given it five stars and left some really positive comments about the book. It’s no exaggeration to say that good reviews really do make my day.

The Pendle Witch Trials have been getting quite a lot of attention again, generated by big new releases in the literary world such as Stacey Halls’ The Familiars, and television shows such as Channel 5 (UK)’s Digging Up Britain’s Past. I have finally found some time to catch up with this series and watch the episode about the Pendle witches. The episode focused on an archaeological dig to try to locate the remains of the lost Malkin Tower, home of the Device family. I won’t spoil it by telling you if they were successful or not, but it is good to see that after hundreds of years this tragic tale is still attracting interest and attention. If you want to find out more about the TV show, check out the review on the Radio Times website.

I hope you all have a lovely weekend – I’m off to try and get The House at Kirtlebeck End up to 70,000 words before Sunday night! It’s all about setting goals…!

 

A healthy dose of motivation

A few weeks ago, I entered a tweet your pitch competition on Twitter, under the hashtag #XpoNorth. Authors based in Scotland were asked to pitch their work, even if it was incomplete, and told that agents and publishers would be watching. I’m not on Twitter all that often, and this particular contest would have escaped my notice entirely if it hadn’t been for a cursory flick through my news feed and seeing a pitch by a fellow author. Since my current work in progress, The House at Kirtlebeck End, isn’t complete and I’m not at the pitching stage as yet, I had to give a lot of thought as to what to say about my book in so few words! In the end I made two attempts at it, one of which was this:

I tweeted, added my hashtag and promptly forgot all about it, if I’m honest. It was a Friday, the weekend was looming, the kids were home and family life beckoned. Then, a few days later, I logged on to Twitter again and saw this:

I’m not going to lie, readers; my heart sang just a little bit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not getting carried away. After all a pitch is just an advert, a hook, and not a full manuscript. Heck, I don’t even have a completed manuscript yet. But nonetheless this was interest from the publishing industry. As an author who has been through the ‘submit, wait, hope, silence’ process a good few times, this represents progress.

Above all, it gave me the kick I needed to make me throw everything I’ve got into getting this book finished.

I have, of course, sent a query to the publisher – not an easy task for a book which isn’t written yet, by the way! I’ve yet to hear anything, and I might not hear anything, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter. This interest was exactly what I needed to motivate me to get this book written, and if this reply to my tweet ultimately serves no greater purpose than that, I’ll still be happy.

Getting off to a good start…

Happy new year! After a lovely festive break I have finally persuaded myself back into the writing room to get on with some writing, and some blogging. At the end of last year I promised you a post on my 2019 goals, and as this is the first post of the new year, setting out my targets for the months ahead seems like a good place to start.

So, let’s get on with it, shall we?

Goal 1 – Finish writing The House at Kirtlebeck End: I’ve mentioned previously on my blog that progress on my new contemporary novel has been a wee bit slow. However, I ended 2018 with it roughly half-written and have made completing it my top priority for 2019.

Goal 2 – Submit The House at Kirtlebeck End to agents/publishers: Well, what have I got to lose? Having been through the querying process before with a couple of my other books, I know that this can take some time. Nonetheless, I believe in this book and its ability to have a broad appeal, and so I owe it to myself and my work to give it the best possible chance of success. And, if it doesn’t get picked up, I can of course publish it myself.

Goal 3 – Research my next historical novel: I’m in the early stages of doing this, having tentatively decided to try my hand at writing about Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of the nineteenth century Scottish novelist and historian Thomas Carlyle. It’s early days but I would like to have completed my research by the end of the year so that I can begin writing in 2020. Besides, research will keep me busy while I patiently await replies for Goal 2…

Goal 4 – Keep writing and submitting to magazines/journals: I’m keen to build on last year’s successes here, and so will keep writing shorter pieces whenever the mood takes me.

And there you have it. 2019’s goals are, I believe, perfectly achievable but even so, writing and researching is time-consuming and therefore I am going to need to stay focused. With this in mind, I have decided not to set myself a marketing-related goal this year. The past few years have taught me that marketing and book promotion, whilst useful, can be a real draw on an author’s time and energies, and I simply don’t have time to do everything. That’s not to say I won’t still be blogging or posting on social media, but inevitably there will be less promo activity from me. So please, in 2019 more than ever before, if you enjoy one of my books then tell a friend, write a review, share a post, retweet me! Organic reach and good old fashioned recommendations will be more vital for me than ever 😉

In 2018 I did pretty well with my goals, achieving most and getting them all at least underway. Hopefully I can do the same in 2019. Now, back to the writing den I go – The House at Kirtlebeck End isn’t going to write itself…

Favourite Books of 2018

With 2018 fast drawing to a close, I thought that today I would reflect upon the books I’ve read during the last twelve months and select my favourites. This year, for the first time, I participated in the Goodreads Reading Challenge, setting myself the modest target of reading twenty books in a year. This doesn’t sound like much, but as a lot of writers will tell you, when you’re working hard on your own stories it can be tough to find the time to read a lot! In the end I exceeded my target, reading 24 books between January and December. With a little over a week to go until the new year and a hefty non-fiction book underway, it seems unlikely that I’ll complete anything else before Hogmanay. So, without any further ado, here are my favourite books of 2018!

Warrior Daughter by Janet Paisley

Genre: Historical Fiction

Blurb: Inspired by first century AD warrior women, Janet Paisley’s Warrior Daughter is a gripping adventure about one young woman’s struggle to survive in the harsh Celtic wilderness.

2,000 years ago on the Isle of Skye, a warrior is born.

Daughter of an Iron Age warrior queen, Skaaha is wild, headstrong and revered. But she is also a child, and when a chariot race leaves the queen dead and her menacing rival Mara in her place, Skaaha’s charmed life lies in ruins.

Vulnerable, her future imperilled, Skaaha seeks to forge a life beyond the new queen’s reach. But with rumour, fear and danger sweeping the island, she cannot remain unmoved. Broken by brutal misfortune, alone in a world of mistrust, Skaaha must unearth the courage to confront her enemies in defence of her people.

Illuminated by the great Celtic fire festivals, Warrior Daughter is inspired by the historical Scathach, a fierce warrior woman of the first century AD and forerunner to the equally ferocious Boudicca.

Rating: Five stars. An epic, heart-stopping prehistorical adventure which would work wonderfully as a film. Read my full review  here.

A Case of Serendipity by KJ Farnham

Genre: Women’s Fiction, Romance

Blurb: Ruth Bateman is at her wit’s end. If Bucky’s Beans doesn’t stop spamming her phone with discount codes for frou-frou java concoctions, she’s going to flip. After multiple failed attempts to unsubscribe, Ruth takes to the company’s Facebook page to vent her frustration over the never-ending texts.

When attorney, Henry Mancuso, stumbles upon Ruth’s complaint, he has no idea that a simple Facebook scroll is going to change his life. Now, he has to get Ruth to agree to a class action lawsuit when she’s just looking for some peace on her mobile device—not a drawn-out case against a coffeehouse giant.

As Ruth and Henry battle the legal waters, a friendship full of fun and spontaneity blooms. But could something more be brewing between these two and this coffeehouse case?

Rating: Five Stars. If you like romance without erotica, well-rounded, likable characters and uplifting plots then this book is for you. Highly recommended. Read my full review here.

Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

Genre: Young Adult

Blurb: Vivian Carter is fed up. Fed up with her small-town Texas high school that thinks the football team can do no wrong. Fed up with sexist dress codes and hallway harassment. But most of all, Viv Carter is fed up with always following the rules.

Viv’s mom was a punk rock Riot Grrrl in the ’90s, so now Viv takes a page from her mother’s past and creates a feminist zine that she distributes anonymously to her classmates. She’s just blowing off steam, but other girls respond. Pretty soon Viv is forging friendships with other young women across the divides of cliques and popularity rankings, and she realizes that what she has started is nothing short of a girl revolution.

Rating: Five stars. A highly entertaining, relevant and powerful read. Read my full review here.

Poets Pass by Hillary DeVisser

Genre: Women’s Fiction, Romance

Blurb: Dr. Avery O’Gara is a psychiatrist who doesn’t trust men any further than she can throw them. She prefers her boundaries high and her trysts without emotional ties. She likes her privacy and values her independence above all else. Avery’s home in the country is her sanctuary, her escape from the emotional overload of her job. Her sense of peace is destroyed, beginning with the appearance of muddy boot prints outside her window.

Recently divorced, Officer Jake Marcovic needs a change of scenery. He leaves Chicago and his manipulative ex-wife behind for family and a much slower pace of living. Relocating back to his rural roots, he sees women as money-hungry opportunists and avoids commitment like the plague. His focus is on establishing himself in his once-familiar community and enjoying the women who appreciate a man in uniform.

When high walls are built up to protect hearts, what happens when they come crashing down?

Rating: Five stars. The third installment of the Coal Country series, this is a heartfelt romance with just the right amount of suspense. Hillary DeVisser was one of my featured indie authors earlier this year – you can read that post and find out more here.

The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Crime

Blurb: Sarah Gilchrist has fled London and a troubled past to join the University of Edinburgh’s medical school in 1892, the first year it admits women. She is determined to become a doctor despite the misgivings of her family and society, but Sarah quickly finds plenty of barriers at school itself: professors who refuse to teach their new pupils, male students determined to force out their female counterparts, and—perhaps worst of all—her female peers who will do anything to avoid being associated with a fallen woman.

Desperate for a proper education, Sarah turns to one of the city’s ramshackle charitable hospitals for additional training. The St Giles’ Infirmary for Women ministers to the downtrodden and drunk, the thieves and whores with nowhere else to go. In this environment, alongside a group of smart and tough teachers, Sarah gets quite an education. But when Lucy, one of Sarah’s patients, turns up in the university dissecting room as a battered corpse, Sarah finds herself drawn into a murky underworld of bribery, brothels, and body snatchers.

Painfully aware of just how little separates her own life from that of her former patient’s, Sarah is determined to find out what happened to Lucy and bring those responsible for her death to justice. But as she searches for answers in Edinburgh’s dank alleyways, bawdy houses and fight clubs, Sarah comes closer and closer to uncovering one of Edinburgh’s most lucrative trades, and, in doing so, puts her own life at risk…

Rating: Five stars. A highly enjoyable read – I am looking forward to the next installment in the series already. Read my full review here.

The Bachelors by E S Carter

Genre: Women’s Fiction, Romance

Blurb: It is a well-known fact that a single man without a penny to his name must be in want of a rich wife.
Darcy, Bingham and Wick Austen are about to lose the family business.
Without a miracle or a substantial cash investment, Austen’s – the bookstore chain that was established by their great-great grandfather – will go into receivership.
A chance encounter at a charity ball with the attractive, single and filthy-rich Bennet sisters has Wick Austen convincing his brothers that the way to save their livelihoods rests at the Bennet’s red-soled-shoe clad feet.
But these three women are far more than your average, simpering, society-loving heiresses.

Darcy isn’t so sure about his youngest brother’s plan, especially when the smart, feisty and ridiculously sexy Eliza Bennet shoots down his advances in a ball of flames, and accuses him of being a proud and egotistical jerk.
Meanwhile, Bingham meets the sweet and approachable Jane, and insta-love ensues, and Wick gets used up and spat out by the youngest and most flighty sister, Lydia.
Will the Austen bachelors secure a wife and save the family name or will they become the Bennet sister’s latest conquests?

Rating: Five stars. A sassy modern tale inspired by Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride and Prejudice. In addition to The Bachelors, E S Carter is the author of the Love by Numbers and Red Order series – more about these over on Goodreads.

Nasty Women by 404 Ink

Genre: Non-Fiction

Blurb: With intolerance and inequality increasingly normalised by the day, it’s more important than ever for women to share their experiences. We must hold the truth to account in the midst of sensationalism and international political turmoil. Nasty Women is a collection of essays, interviews and accounts on what it is to be a woman in the 21st century.

People, politics, pressure, punk – From working class experience to racial divides in Trump’s America, being a child of immigrants, to sexual assault, Brexit, pregnancy, contraception, identity, family, finding a voice online, role models and more, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, Zeba Talkhani, Chitra Ramaswamy are just a few of the incredible women who share their experience here.

Keep telling your stories, and tell them loud.

Rating: Five stars. An excellent and thought-provoking read. Read my full review here.

Glasdrum by Fiona MacBain

Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Crime

Blurb: One town. Five women. Dark events.

Life is not easy for the women of Glasdrum…

A skeleton is unearthed, too many walkers are falling to their deaths off mountain cliffs, and the local pub doesn’t know how to make a decent raspberry daiquiri.

Single mother Megan is a hill runner and cannabis dealer, an unlikely friend of well-to-do Finella, whose confident appearance hides struggles with her unpleasant husband and unruly children.

Vicky is Finella’s child-minder, and when Finella’s husband starts digging about in her past, he discovers she has a secret. How far will she go to protect it?

Glasdrum is a culture shock to Londoner Sarah, but she finds friendship with local journalist Catriona, recently returned to her home town but haunted by memories from her past.

The women battle through daily life while the spectre of death looms over the town. Could one of them be living with a killer?

Rating: Five stars. A gripping read, perfect for enjoying from the comfort of your sun lounger. Read my full review here.

And there you have it! This is my final post of this year; therefore I’d like to take the opportunity to thank you all for your support during 2018, and to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. 

The Year in Review

Back in January, I set myself five writing goals for 2018 and posted them up on my blog. I decided at the time not to call these resolutions; my logic being that in doing so I would be setting myself up for a fall, that it would be better to aim to do certain things rather than solemnly swear that I would do so.

I suppose you could call that letting myself off the hook in advance! Nonetheless, let’s see how I did, shall we?

Goal 1: Finish the third book in my Witches of Pendle series

Success! As regular readers of my blog will know, not only did I finish writing it, but I published the third instalment The Pendle Witch Girl back in the summer.

Goal 2: Get working on my next contemporary novel

I’m pleased to report that I made some progress on this particular goal during 2018. Currently I have written about 40,000 words for my contemporary story, The House at Kirtlebeck End. Progress has been slower than I would have liked; however, the story is really starting to take shape and work will continue into 2019. So, watch this space…

Goal 3: Start researching for my next historical novel

Ah. I haven’t made much headway with this one, if I’m honest.  This is mainly because my focus this year has been very much on goals 1 and 2, but also because I have struggled a little to decide which historical fiction project to concentrate on. I’m still reading around a couple of potential subjects so at the moment I’m just seeing where the research leads me. I suspect that once I have finished writing The House at Kirtlebeck End I’ll make a choice about which story I want to write next. Whatever happens, I’m ready to get my teeth into something historical for my next book and I feel very excited about a number of different options I have swirling around my brain right now.

Goal 4: Get some short stories into print/online publications

This goal was probably the hardest to achieve because unlike the others, it was out of my control and very much in the hands of the editors of the many magazines and journals out there. As I mentioned when I set this goal for myself, in 2017 I had written a lot of short stories and tried to get them published without much success. I’m pleased to say that 2018 was far more successful in this regard, with 3 of my short stories being published online and one also finding its way into an anthology of dark literature. Check out my other work page for the links to these stories.

Goal 5: Keep talking about my work

Almost 12 months ago I included this goal on my list so that I would be conscious of it, as I recognised that ‘talking up’ my work isn’t exactly a strength of mine. In 2018 I tried hard with this, maintaining an active blog and social media channels, running a successful marketing campaign for the release of The Pendle Witch Girl and participating in a couple of author interviews. Overall, I think I didn’t do too badly with this.

So, in terms of writing goals, I’d say 2018 has been a pretty successful year. Like any occupation, sometimes being a writer can feel like an uphill struggle, and it is easy to focus on the negatives, the things which you haven’t achieved, the rejections and so forth. It is good, therefore, to take stock, to think about what you did manage to do and how far you’ve come in a year. And I have to say, I feel fairly cheerful after writing this! In January I’ll be back with my list of goals for 2019.

 

 

Noughts and Crosses

This year marks the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK. Throughout 2018 there have been events, marches, exhibitions, plays and books to mark this significant anniversary when some, but not all women, finally got the vote. As the year draws to a close, no doubt many of us will pause to reflect on the celebrations, but also the discussions about equality, opportunity, and the ongoing challenges faced by  today’s women, which this anniversary has provoked.

As a historian and a writer, I have always been drawn to consider the position of women throughout the centuries, to examine their lot in life as mothers, daughters, lovers, witches and warriors. As the centenary dawned almost twelve months ago, I found myself drawn once again to the suffragettes. I decided to write a short story which reflects upon their struggle and their legacy, upon the power of the pen and the significance of the simple but hard-won act of making your mark at the ballot box. The piece, entitled Noughts and Crosses, is written as diary extracts from two women living in Edinburgh but almost a hundred years apart; an early twentieth century suffragist, and an early twenty-first century student faced with voting for the first time. I chose this format because as well as commenting on the political, I wanted to convey the empowerment which comes from personal writing and reflection. Noughts and Crosses is a celebration of women’s achievements, but it also reflects that in a time plagued increasingly by cynicism, turmoil and fatigue as established political systems creak and groan against the strain of twenty-first century challenges, the act of voting in itself nonetheless endures as a form of protest.

Noughts and Crosses was my entry for this year’s Costa short story award. A few days ago I found out that it had, unfortunately, been unsuccessful in making the shortlist. (The shortlisted entries can be found here. Please do consider reading them and voting for your favourite in the public poll – you’ll potentially make a writer somewhere very happy!) I felt it was a shame, given the story’s topical nature, for it to gather dust in a drawer forever more, so to speak, so instead, I have decided to publish it here. I really hope that you all enjoy it and I would ask, if you do, please share it on social media and maybe tag a friend who you think would like it too.

Noughts and Crosses

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 16th February 1909:

Yesterday evening was so exhilarating that I can barely keep the smile from creeping on to my lips. I know I must suppress it; H is at home today, locked in the drawing room with his papers and his cigars but nonetheless capable of spotting my unexplained glee from a mile away. He thinks we were at the theatre, Bess and I. No doubt he imagines that I enjoyed an evening of frivolity, a casual spectator at a performance of the latest production to travel north from London. If indeed, he imagines anything at all.

You see, last night confirmed something to me, something that I have long suspected, and now I feel certain is true. Men like H don’t see us, not really. They admire us, they choose us, they marry us. But they don’t see us – not like they see each other. We are the fair sex, the delicate sex. But we are not the serious sex. We are not the sex that is capable of making important decisions, even about matters which affect us first and foremost.

Last night I heard these arguments rebutted, one by one. I admit that I was captivated by the strength with which the case for our suffrage was made. The room was filled to the brim with such inspiring women, all arguing with the force of sheer logic why women such as I should be allowed the vote. Many of the speakers grew very animated, advocating strong action to achieve our aims – chaining ourselves to railings, breaking windows and so forth. I must admit that the mere thought of such disobedience makes my blood run cold. Can you imagine what H would say? 

Nonetheless, I’m already planning my ruse to attend next month’s meeting. I’ll tell H that we’re going to the theatre again. He will think me an enthusiast; he will laugh and tap me under the chin affectionately, just like he always does when he is amused. I don’t like having to lie; sometimes I envy Bess her freedom to do as she pleases, although of course I would not wish to be a widow. But I must lie; better that I am regarded as a supporter of the arts than a supporter of votes for women. Better I keep my face composed and my thoughts to myself. At least I can write it down and this diary, this paper and this ink can testify to what I dare not utter aloud: I believe that a woman should be allowed the vote in all elections, if she is of equivocal status to a man who is already allowed the vote according to the law of this land. I don’t think that is particularly radical. And yet, I know in my heart that H would disagree.

 

Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 24th April 2010:

Don’t even know how I’ve got the energy to write anything in here right now. So exhausted. Last night was braw though. Sinead and Mhairi had it all planned out by the time I got to Mhairi’s – into town, drinks then a club then more drinks! All good fun and no boys to complicate things, either. Managed not to run into Callum which was a bonus. Been doing my head in since we split.

Turning 18 is the best! Although today I’m feeling it. Head is pounding. Back to bed for me soon, I think, before I go out for a family dinner. Bit quieter than last night but it’ll be good – Mum says Gran is coming too, which is nice. Gran always has a good story or two about when she was my age. Mum says I should make the most of her, that she’s getting on a bit now and her memory isn’t what it was. Glad I’m only 18, not 80. Better keep those sorts of comments to myself though, or Mum will be once again reminding me that I’m an adult now. Seriously, I’ve been 18 for less than 48 hours and I’ve already lost count of how many times she has said that to me. The best one was yesterday afternoon, when she decided to dump a load of election leaflets in my room. Came through the door, apparently. You can vote now, she tells me, as if I didn’t already know. Next election is in May – well, okay, I’ll admit that I didn’t know that. Why would I? Not like any of it means anything to me. I dunno. Maybe I’ll have a read later. After I’ve slept some more. So tired.

 

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh,10th October 1909:

The day of the march started well, but ended terribly badly. I am so shaken that I can hardly manage to hold my pen to write this. Nor can I stop the tears tumbling down my cheeks, spilling on to the page and making the ink run, forming messy black pools as deep as my despair. I keep telling myself that I shouldn’t be surprised; I must have known that this day would come. Indeed, it is a miracle that I managed to keep this secret for so long. Yesterday, however, I took one step too far from the shadows, exposing my involvement for all to see. And H has his spies everywhere, of course, just as any successful man with a care for his reputation should. How foolish of me to think that I would not be seen! How dreadfully foolish.

The day which greeted us was still, sunny and bright; unusual for this time of year but wholly welcome. Bess and I joined the march at Princes Street, slipping through the crowds which had gathered and taking our places behind an enormous, beautifully embroidered banner declaring ‘Votes for Women’. As I walked I felt such pride at being part of something so important, to be making my stand for the right of women to vote on the same basis as men. I still believe that this cannot be too much to ask, that it cannot be so scandalous a notion! And yet it must, for when I returned home later a voice greeted me, one so grave that I thought for a moment that there must have been a death in the family. That evening there was a death, of sorts; the death of my spirit as it was crushed by the authority bestowed upon my husband’s sex. I was reminded at once of what it means to have no rights, no rights at all.

Today I am confined to my room like a reprimanded child. Bess is prohibited from visiting, H having satisfied himself that I have been led astray by a wicked widow whose lack of a husband has caused her descent into wild fanaticism. So I sit here, pressing my pen down hard as I write these words, my tears evaporating into anger at being robbed of those things that I hold dear: my cause, and my friend. The worst of it all is that I am punished so harshly for doing so little. I was a coward who went to a few meetings and walked in a procession. I broke no laws, smashed no property, set no fires. Now I sit and I wish that I had done, that I had given my all. Instead, yesterday was my final, feeble act; I dare not do anything else for our good cause ever again.

 

Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 1st May 2010:

Not managed to scribble down a single thought this week. College work is just immense; two assessments and an essay to complete and no end in sight. At least it’s Saturday.

Mum is doing my head in about this voting thing! Keeps asking if I’ve read the leaflets yet, have I got any questions, do I want to chat about it…total nightmare! She even got Gran joining in at my birthday dinner last week. I think when she was younger my gran must have been a feminist – she came out with all this stuff about the fight for equality and women’s rights. Reckon that’s where Mum gets a lot of her ideas from, too. Honestly, I had both of them on my case. Women fought and died for your right to vote, Gran says to me, like I didn’t know, like I never went to school and learnt these things. So I told her, nicely of course because she’s my gran, that surely if they died for my right to vote, they died for my right not to vote, as well? Surely it’s the choice that matters? That shut them both up. Honestly, absolute nightmare.

Anyway, I did have a look at those leaflets. Can’t say that any of them were very inspiring. Even if I did want to vote, I’ve no idea who I would vote for. Still think my first instinct was correct – waste of time, so don’t bother.

 

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 12th August 1914

It has been some time since I have written down my thoughts. In truth I have become very good at avoiding the practice of thinking as much as possible, letting life glide past me while I watch, a passive observer at the back of the crowd. It seemed easier that way; easier for H, easier for me.

Last week, however, everything changed. Britain is going to war, and it looks like H is going, too. He has to do his bit, so he tells me. He says that with so many men going away, it is likely that women will also have to help, that I must be prepared for some of the servants choosing to leave and taking whatever wartime work presents itself. Life will change, he keeps telling me, but it will only be for a little while. Everyone expects that the war will be over by Christmas.

I hope it is over quickly. I can’t bear the thought of being left alone in this house, especially with a baby on the way. I haven’t told H yet. I don’t know why; perhaps it’s because I know he’ll be so happy with me, and I can’t bear his delight when I feel so unhappy with myself. I will tell him before he leaves.

The news of war has affected the cause, too. There will be no more marches, no more action; it has all ground to a halt. Part of me is relieved, I think. The reports over the last few months have been so upsetting, with more and more women finding themselves arrested and charged with increasingly dangerous acts. This summer one woman even tried to interrupt the King and Queen’s visit to Perth by running towards the royal car! They say that once in prison those women who refuse to eat are force-fed, and that Perth prison is one of the worst places for this practice. The very thought makes my stomach churn. At least this war has put an end to that, but on the other hand, where does this leave the cause? I hope it is not forgotten forever.  

 

Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 6th May 2010:

Well, I went and I did it. Still can’t believe it. Until yesterday I was sure I wasn’t going to bother to vote. Must have read those leaflets hundreds of times – even went on the internet to try to decide who to vote for, and came away even more confused. Why can’t politics just be straightforward? Seems like riddles to me. Riddles and promises which aren’t kept.

Something about what my gran said kept bothering me, though. Kept hearing her voice going round and round in my head, talking about the suffragettes and everything. That made me think that not going at all seemed like a bit of a waste. So, I voted – well, sort of. I made my mark at least. Several marks, actually. I still didn’t know who to vote for, so I went to the polling station and I put a zero in each of the boxes – a series of noughts all in a column down the page. Then I put my paper in the ballot box and left. I know it doesn’t count as a vote, but I’ve been and I’ve had my say anyway. That’s what women fought for, after all – the right to a voice, not to say any particular thing with it.

Mum’s just glad I went and voted. I haven’t told her the full story, of course. Keep thinking about the power of the pen now. Started off thinking that my noughts were just symbols of my cluelessness but now they feel like a protest – my protest against how rubbish I think it all is, carved out in ink. Weird thought. Still not telling Mum though.

 

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 14th December 1918

Tonight my heart is so full of joy that I think it might burst. Even the sorrows and horrors of the last four years cannot dampen my happiness. All that hard work and strife, all that bravery and determination; it was all worth it.

I voted today. Such wonderful words! I voted. I went with Bess; we’re both on our own now, reunited since she returned from her Land Army work. She has changed a great deal; she is so worldly-wise, and so strong! But she is still such a dear friend. Little Edith came too, wrapped up warm as she skipped along to the polling place. I showed her what to do, how to put a cross against your chosen candidate and how to put your paper in the ballot box. She didn’t really understand, despite my efforts to explain how important it was. But she will understand one day. She will understand what I, what all of us did for our daughters, how significant that little mark made in ink actually is.

On my way home I thought about H, just as I do every day. It’s hard, knowing that he will never come home, that he will never see Edith grow up. I know that he was never in favour of votes for women, but I like to think that he was watching as I voted, that he was proud of me. I thought too about all the women who weren’t able to vote today. There is still more to do in that regard, especially since all men now have the vote. All men – I wonder what H would say about that! It’s strange how this war threw everything up into the air and we are still grappling around, trying to gather the pieces. H was right; life did change, and I feel certain that it will keep changing. Perhaps by the time Edith votes, all women will be voting alongside her! I can’t think of anything more wonderful.  

The Suspension of Focus

Those of you who follow my blog regularly will know that a month ago I made a pledge, banning myself from social media, blogging and all manner of other online browsing distractions to focus on my latest project.

Well, things didn’t quite go according to plan.

In the end I managed around 7,500 words in four weeks, which in the grand scheme of writing a novel, isn’t a great deal. Turns out that although you can remove yourself from the internet, you can’t remove yourself from life. For a time a few real-life events took over, which meant my writing had to take a back seat. Also, if I’m completely honest, I struggled to stay away from social media, for which I blame my politics addiction, particularly the mind-blowing boorach which is Brexit.

So, where to now? Well, I’m not planning to extend my internet ban, but I am hoping to get on with some writing, despite the busy festive season ahead. I think the key will be making time but also giving myself a break – if the past month has taught me anything, it’s that so much in life is unforeseen and outside of our control, and that distraction comes in many forms. What struck me, more than anything, is how life’s twists and turns can absolutely leave you in the ‘wrong’ place to write, so that even when you find the time and space, you don’t necessarily feel like writing. In the years I have been crafting stories, it has only been very recently that I have encountered this feeling. I’m not going to lie to you, folks, it’s a tough one to overcome.

One way or another, however, I am going to finish this book. I’m excited about it and I believe in it, and as 2018 comes to a close, it is that sense of determination which I plan to focus on.