Another year almost done and dusted. This one actually felt pretty… normal? I know the Covid pandemic has changed things in so many dramatic and complex ways, but here in the UK we’ve had no lockdowns at all this year, and things like hybrid working and optional masking have become a part of everyday life.
As for me, I moved out of shared housing and into my own flat that I only share with the rats in the walls (Bristol housing for the win). As someone who’s spent most of her adult life living alone, I really feel the need for my own space. But yeah, this place is not ideal. Gonna pretend I’m a writer in the olden days, wasting away from consumption in a mouldy garret.
Which brings us to…
I got two things published this year.
VOCSSis my first attempt at a proper horror story, and I managed to get it published in Electric Spec. Give it a read if you’re in the mood for vampires.
My poetry chapbook 16 Flavours of Ghost was published by Lapwing Publications. If you’re in the mood for ghosts, have a UK address and a spare £8 (postage included) I’d love to send you a copy. Just message me on Twitter @corastillwrites or Instagram @badfanartforgoodbooks.
I spent most of 2022 working on the first draft of my supernatural mystery novel The Redmaid Witch. I had that completed by November, so instead of doing NaNoWriMo, I did NaNoEdMo and spent the month doing some much-needed edits.
I’ve now handed it over to some beta readers and am anxiously awaiting their feedback. My first beta reader already got back to me and gave the story a big thumbs up, so I just need to hang on to that when the others give me a mile-long list of things that need fixing.
Alongside The Redmaid Witch, I managed to squeeze in three short stories. I was clearly in a Fantasy mood, because two of them involve characters travelling to fairy realms to retrieve stolen items/people. The third one took a slight departure and involves a young woman dealing with the fact that her dad is a serial killer.
I’ve read 26 books this year, exceeding my modest target of 24. A large chunk of my reading consisted of historical fiction, and a large chunk of that consisted of nautical fiction. I’m thinking of creating my own nautical fiction reading challenge for 2023, so if you like adventures on the high seas, watch this space…
I’d love to hear about your writing and reading shenanigans this year. Favourite book? Least favourite? Wrote some poetry? Got anything published? Read 60 books and want to brag about it? Tell me in the comments!
I like to think I’m a well-read person. I read broadly, across most if not all genres, and I don’t avoid controversial books. So what is the most harmful book I’ve ever read?
Yep. I can say confidently that the middle grade novel The Exiles at Home by Hilary McKay is the most harmful book I’ve ever read, because it’s the only one that directly caused me to harm another person.
In The Exiles at Home, young Phoebe Conroy wants to be a zookeeper. She practises by making her own zoo and putting a picture of her sister Rachel in it, with a sign saying “Beware of the Roaring Pig”. Eight-year-old me thought this was both creative and hilarious, so I did the same thing to my own sister. Obviously she was upset and angry, and I got a proper telling-off.
My point here is that there is no such thing as a “safe” book. Books can be harmful by presenting shitty behaviour as funny (or just normal), perpetuating damaging stereotypes or narratives, glorifying violence, romanticising abuse, or pretending truly dangerous things are safe. There are a million different ways a book could potentially cause harm.
Ban all the books!
So what to do about it? Should we keep a gimlet eye on every book that’s published, getting ready to ban it at a moment’s notice? For me, it’s a clear No. If you are old enough to read, you are old enough to think for yourself and decide what to do with a book’s messages.
Banning books – whether it’s the government, organisations or individuals removing books from libraries, schools or bookshops – is blatant censorship. Depriving people of the right to access books of their own choosing is straight out of 1984 – a book that has, of course, been banned repeatedly for “obscenity” and supposedly pro-communist passages.
Also, have you seen which books get banned these days? It’s basically any book where teenage characters have horny feelings, and that picture book about two male penguins adopting an egg.
Cancel all the books!
Maybe we should stick to “cancelling” books that we consider harmful instead. This is a more complex issue, because when people talk about cancelling books they are usually talking about de-platforming – basically, boycotting a book or author, and encouraging others to do the same.
The discourse around cancelling books can get ugly, but boycotts are a completely legitimate tool of social change. So, do I agree with the cancellation of books that readers consider harmful? Mostly, no.
Reason number one – I believe cancel culture in the book world is harmful to marginalised authors and likely to result in less diversity in publishing. Feel free to disagree with me on this point, but be aware you are disagreeing with a marginalised author.
One or two high profile cases have given the impression that cancelling books is all about holding rich, white men (and rich, white Harry Potter creators*) accountable to their audience. In reality, you can’t cancel these mainstream authors because they have readers all across the political spectrum.
The same can’t be said of marginalised authors who write about marginalised characters. We get our foothold amongst readers who actively seek diversity in their reading and regularly engage with social issues. Sorry to use the w-word, but our readers are way more likely to be “woke”.
That’s all fine and dandy, but God forbid we don’t live up to their standards of progressive literature. One slip-up – anything from cultural appropriation to writing too casually about suicide – can end a career before it even begins.
We’re not allowed to make mistakes, learn and grow like mainstream authors, and we’re certainly not allowed unpopular opinions. Cancel culture tells marginalised authors “You’re not allowed to be an artist or an entertainer – that’s for straight, white dudes. You must be a safe space.”
Reason number two – I believe cancel culture in the book world makes traditional publishing an even more risk-averse place. It’s already conservative as hell, avoiding anything that is less likely to turn a profit due to being the wrong style, the wrong length, not fitting neatly into an established genre, etc. Now, books also need to be as inoffensive as possible.
A book can get cancelled for many reasons, but it generally begins with “This book makes me uncomfortable”. Since books that are provocative or challenging frequently make people uncomfortable, publishers are more likely to avoid them in favour of books that are “wholesome”, “comforting”, or “like a big, warm hug”.
This brings me back to The Exiles at Home, which I still think is a brilliant book. One of the best things about it is that the characters act like real sisters, and real people. The constant labelling of books as “problematic” for featuring flawed characters who do bad things makes me think that this type of character depth is actively discouraged.
It also links in with my first point about marginalised authors being under more scrutiny. As a queer author, I often hear other queer authors lamenting that their characters have to be perfect (and have perfect relationships) to be considered unproblematic. It’s unfair, and it’s boring as f*ck.
OK, rant over
Thanks for reading. If you still feel that cancelling books is a good and necessary thing to do, that’s OK. I know this comes from a genuine, caring place of wanting to prevent harm. My thinking is that books will never be harmless. They are not inert little scraps of paper, but living things that interact with our minds in brilliant, terrifying, and sometimes unforeseeable ways.
I would ask you to be brave, and to boost twice as many books as you boycott. Particularly those written by marginalised authors, or about risky topics that make mainstream publishers squirm.
* People are actually trying to cancel J.K. Rowling for her transphobia rather than anything to do with her books, but the whole “Can you separate art and artist?” thing is beyond the scope of this post.
I’ve stolen this idea from Sara Flower Kjeldsen’s blog, but I couldn’t resist! It’s a lot of fun to make a playlist for a coming-of-age story, because there are so many great songs that really capture the turbulent emotions of being a teen. Here’s my selection for Other People’s Butterflies. Have a listen, and have a read!
In Throne of Glass, a bunch of assassins and thieves compete for a chance to be the King’s Champion. A daft-but-fun YA read with plenty of action.
Organisation queen – How do you organise your books?
Err, I don’t. They’re shoved in my bookshelves every which way and kept in piles on the floor.
A book you read for the hype
I bought Song of Achilles because I’d heard so many people speak highly of it, but I just couldn’t get into it. Not to sound like a straight dude (because I’m neither straight nor a dude) but I was hoping for a bit less romance and a bit more fighting the Trojans.
Shopping addict – What makes you buy a book?
Oh damn, so many things. But lately I’ve been making a conscious effort to read more indie books, so I’m more likely to buy something self-published or published by a small/independent press.
A science fiction book
Let’s go with Klara and the Sun. If you’re a fan of the Spielberg film A.I. Artificial Intelligence, this is a must-read.
On a break – Which books have you put down to pick up later?
I started reading The Amber Spyglass at 15 but didn’t get around to finishing it until I was 19. I feel like those four years made a difference to my understanding of it.
A book that made you laugh out loud
I rarely laugh out loud at books but OMG, that scene with the tin of pineapple! Three Men in a Boat is possibly the funniest book I’ve read and it was published in 1889. It just goes to show that some things are timelessly funny: slapstick, crap holidays, and young guys being very bad at adulting.
That time at space mountain – Are there any books you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve read?
Ahem, I think you’ll find it was Ross who had the embarrassing incident on space mountain. I don’t see the point in being embarrassed about reading something you enjoy, but I have read some stereotypically “guilty pleasure” books, such as…
A scary book you’d keep in the freezer
Don’t laugh! I doubt any book will ever scare me quite as much as this one did when I was a kid.
V is for encyclopaedia – As an adult, have you read any books with words you had to look up to understand?
I’m sure I have, but can’t think of any in particular.
A book with a spiritual or supernatural theme
This one is about the Norse gods, doing very spiritual things like fighting, playing tricks on each other, and tying their genitals to a goat (that last one is Loki in case you hadn’t guessed).
A book with an “Oh My God!” twist
A British classic
You can’t beat a good Dickens.
A book nobody seems to be talking about
All the indie books! I’m going to take this opportunity to shout out the Inverbrudock trilogy by Katherine Highland, particularly A Lattice of Scenes and Seasons as it’s my fave. These three #ownvoices books centre autistic women and girls as they navigate the joys and challenges of everyday life in Scotland.
Carol and Susan
An LGBTQ+ author and book
This list needs some poetry, so who better to add than Carol Ann Duffy? I love her Selected Poems, which contains work from five of her books. Some of her poems explore her experiences as a gay woman, while others take vastly different points of view. All are vivid, sharp, and full of feeling.
I don’t usually read traditional romance novels. I need to be tricked into reading romance by disguising it as another genre like historical fiction.
If you’re reading this, consider yourself tagged! Unless you’ve already done the FRIENDS tag, which is entirely possible since it’s about four years old.
OK, here we have some aromantic feels, some accidental sexiness, and a poem that is just a little scrap of weird. Enjoy!
Here is What I Know of Boyfriends
They are mostly called Dave.
They start out small and badge-shaped
but grow like Japanese knotweed.
They wrap around you like vines, wrist-thick,
tendril-slender, sticky as ivy.
They take you places.
Their kisses are cigarettes and brandy.
They are very important.
They have very important eyes.
Did you know that if you snip the stem of a small, white rosebud, it will bounce on the hard ground like a marble? You can’t kill those soft, sweet things – they only harden in a blink, turn the texture of teeth, take on the lustre of pearls like they were born to it. A thwarted flower is worth a baker’s dozen bouquets and that is God’s honest truth my girl.
Old Heat New Thunder
We sleep and we don’t sleep on the deck
under an unfaithful sky.
My wideawake hands seek hipbone
They are a bunch of thumbs, all idle.
I could dip below deck, catch us some rum.
I could dip below sea like a ladle,
pour the waves on your hot feet.
I feel like the inside of a seed.
I feel like the bit of air that lightning runs through.
I feel like the itch sealed up inside a mermaid’s tail.
I feel okay, all things considered.
The sail fills right up and the heat breaks
loud enough to wake the whole ocean.
Comments are welcome! I know people get shy about commenting on poetry because there’s a misconception you’re supposed to say things like “Oh, I enjoyed the classical pastoral imagery in the second stanza but found the excessive use of assonance a little grating”. It’s a myth! Poetry is for everyone, regardless of how familiar you are with it.
If you enjoyed these poems, I have poetry for sale here and here. If you have a UK address and would like a paper copy of my chapbook 16 Flavours of Ghost, message me on Twitter @corastillwrites. It’s on special offer throughout the month of October, so it’s yours for just £3.65 (postage included).
Just a quick post to say that my poetry chapbook 16 Flavours of Ghost is on special offer throughout the month of October. If you live in the UK, you can grab a copy for just £3.65, postage included! That’s the price of a pumpkin spiced latte and I can assure you these poems will linger longer. Though they may not be quite as comforting!
Each poem is written from the perspective of a ghost adjusting to the afterlife in their own unique way. Some are hung up on old loves and old habits. Others are embracing their newfound freedom. Others died in a rather unsavoury way and have some trauma to work through.
Let’s not sugar-coat it – the world is a ball of flaming rubbish right now. There’s the largest war in Europe since the 1940s, climate change is already causing havoc, and the rights of women and minorities are constantly being pooped on.
Since writers are a passionate bunch, we often feel strongly about social issues. And since we’re an egocentric bunch, we often feel like it’s up to us to solve the world’s problems. Lately, I’ve read a lot of fiction that engages deeply with social issues, and I feel like it can be divided into two broad but distinctive categories: Activism and Exorcism.
Activist fiction presents a shitty situation and says explicitly “This is not OK and we need to fight against it”. It often acts as a vehicle for the writer’s ideas about how to change things, and behaviour change in the reader may be a goal of the writer.
This type of fiction is more likely to name problems – it doesn’t shy away from words like “bigotry” or “privilege”. Characters engaging in harmful behaviour are more likely to be punished, or at least told off (or “called out” as the kids say). Activist fiction is also more likely to present potential solutions to problems.
An example would be The Hate U Giveby Angie Thomas. It’s also easy to find indie books that fit into this category, perhaps because profit-driven traditional publishers are more likely to shy away from overtly “political” books, while small presses and self-publishers can take more risks.
When done well, activist fiction can be genuinely empowering. As well as getting readers fired up, it can give valuable guidance on how to tackle problems. When done badly it can come across as preachy, or seem naïve if it presents overly simplified solutions as the key to solving all our problems.
There are activists and there are exorcists. Exorcist writers, rather than guiding readers on how to fight against injustice, are purging their own demons by putting their thoughts and feelings about an issue onto the page. Their aim is not to guide readers on how to think or act, but simply to bear witness to what’s happening in the world.
This type of fiction often explores social issues rather than tackling them head-on within the plot. There may be more moral ambiguity, with the protagonist experiencing different sides of a situation. Solutions to problems are likely to be incomplete or flawed. Exorcist writers tend to embrace the mess.
An example of exorcist fiction would be The Handmaid’s Taleby Margaret Atwood. Though it’s beloved by feminist activists, this is a book about the system rather than fighting the system. Offred is an observer, recording the atrocities that surround her as she tries to survive.
When done well, this type of fiction can have a lot of power. By letting readers come to their own conclusions, it’s more likely to reach people across the political spectrum and those who are resistant to engaging with social issues. When done badly, it’s just bloody depressing – presenting a terrible situation with no clear path out of it.
Confessions of an exorcist
Although I read and admire many activist writers, I place myself firmly in the exorcist camp. I’m not well-educated enough on most social issues to confidently tell readers what to change and how to change it. I’m content with this and don’t feel any pressure to write more like an activist, as I believe the world needs both types of books.
However, recognising my style does raise certain questions that I need to consider. For example, am I “normalising” harmful behaviour if I present it in fiction without it being challenged? How can I hand power back to marginalised characters in ways that are believable?
Like most of us, I’m still figuring it out and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If you’re a writer, would you consider yourself an activist, an exorcist, neither or both? And if you’re a reader, what do you prefer to read?
Woop woop, I met my goal of 10 historical fiction books this year, which means I’ve reached the “Renaissance Reader” level of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. The five hist fic books I read since my last reading challenge post are:
(BEWARE OF SPOILERS!)
True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
I picked up this book after enjoying the film adaptation. While I’m well aware that THE BOOK IS ALWAYS BETTER, I must admit that it took a while for me to warm up to this book about the famous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.
It’s written in long, rambling sentences to reflect Ned Kelly’s lack of formal education, and this distinctive style means it’s not always a smooth read. It’s also difficult to discern the thoughts and motivations of other characters since the reader is kept totally in Ned’s head. Luckily it has enough action, humour and Huck Finn-ish charm to reward perseverance.
Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne
Another historical novel based on true events – this one follows a teenage pickpocket as he ends up on HMS Bounty before the infamous mutiny. John Jacob Turnstile is spirited, funny, complex, and generally great company. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the rest of the characters.
JJT gets bullied relentlessly by the uppity crew of the Bounty, which makes for depressing reading. But arguably the biggest stumbling block in this novel is the portrayal of Captain Bligh – I couldn’t understand JJT’s loyalty to him because he seems like kind of an arsehole. Judging by the mutiny, his crew would agree!
Sailing by Orion’s Star by Katie Crabb
Nautical setting aside, this was a very different read to Mutiny on the Bounty. Rather than a typical swashbuckler, it’s a story about found-family that follows a diverse group of characters as they deal with the restrictions society has placed on them. Some lose their way, while others rebel in spectacular fashion.
The writing is sometimes overwrought, but hopefully this will be less of an issue in the second and third parts of the trilogy, as Crabb gains confidence in her characters and the relationships between them. The story is so genuinely affecting that there’s no need to over-egg the pudding.
The Pup and the Pianist by Sara Kjeldsen
A pattern emerges! Nautical fiction might seem a bit niche, but I don’t see how anyone can resist a book with a beautiful old ship on the front cover, beckoning the reader to run away to sea.
In less than 100 pages, Kjeldsen crafts an intimate epic of war, young love, and the struggle to survive, as an English boy and a French boy find themselves washed up on The Galapagos islands. An uneasy alliance eventually softens into a tentative romance, but don’t go expecting a happily ever after.
The Queen’s Fool by Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory is such a well-known historical fiction writer that I was expecting to be blown away by this. Objectively speaking, I can see what all the fuss is about. The historical detail is rich, the pacing is exemplary and the court intrigue is, well, intriguing.
Subjectively speaking, I think there are two reasons why this book didn’t wow me. The first is my squeamishness with all the “wooing” of adolescent girls by grown men. The second is that the central characters are so well known, the author’s personal interpretation of them can be a little jarring.
Like most English schoolkids, I learnt of “Bloody Mary”, burning Protestants at the stake, and “the Virgin Queen” ruling England well and wisely. So it was odd to see Mary presented as a sympathetic character and Elizabeth presented as a scheming flirt. In future, I’ll go for hist fic books about invented characters, or ones I can’t remember from history lessons.
Have you read any of these? And what hist fic books would you recommend?
Disclaimer 1: I’ve only included the Anne of… books, and not Rainbow Valley or Rilla of Ingleside, since these are more focussed on Anne’s kids.
Disclaimer 2: This ranking is based on the musings of a fannegirl (me) rather than a thoughtful exploration of literary merit.
Disclaimer 3: SPOILERS AHEAD!
#6 – Anne of Ingleside
The sixth book is going straight in at sixth place, because unfortunately Anne has become a bit boring. She’s sniffy about who her kids hang out with, she pities women who don’t have children, and she doesn’t write anymore. She has become, in the words of Bridget Jones, a “smug married”.
So maybe it’s a good thing that the book spends so much time focussing on Anne’s children, who are every bit as prone to dramas and misadventures as Anne once was. Another thing that bothers me, however, is the absence of true friendship in the book. There’s a lot of focus on how much nicer Anne’s kids are than other kids.
#5 – Anne of Avonlea
I have no real gripes about Anne of Avonlea, but I do find it one of the less memorable books in the series. Anne works as a teacher at her local school before going to college, and there’s a pleasantly wistful sense of a girl who’s all grown up, but hasn’t yet ventured out into the world.
#4 – Anne of Windy Poplars
By modern standards, Anne seems ridiculously young and underqualified to be the Principal of a school, but this is rural Canada in the early 20th century so maybe the schools have, like, 30 pupils. Anyway, Anne throws her heart and soul into her work like she does everything else.
This book employs a familiar but charming narrative device of having part of Anne’s story told through letters to her fiancé, Gilbert Blythe. The letters veer from matter-of-fact, to poetic, to a wee bit risqué!
#3 – Anne of the Island
Friendship is one of the central themes of this series, so it’s a joy to watch Anne go to college and live happily (but sometimes chaotically) with three other girls. Her new friend Phil is one of my favourite characters because she is simultaneously a genius and an airhead. Also, Marilla Cuthbert and Rachel Lynde don’t need no men and are raising twins together.
#2 – Anne of Green Gables
The one that started it all by introducing readers to the imaginative young girl sent to live at Green Gables. This is Anne with her rough edges intact – hot-tempered, stormy-souled, and always making mistakes.
The first book also introduces a number of themes that run throughout the series, such as embracing the natural world, and finding love in unconventional families (Anne is raised by siblings who basically adopt her by accident).
#1 – Anne’s House of Dreams
My favourite book in the series was a delightful surprise because I thought it would be my least favourite. As a woman who doesn’t want marriage or babies, I thought this would be the point at which I lost interest. But Anne’s newlywed happiness is the genuine, giddy, infectious kind, and when tragedy strikes it hits like a sledgehammer.
This book also has something that none of the other books have – an absolutely batshit, telenovela-worthy subplot involving a friend’s unhappy marriage and a dude getting a hole drilled in his skull. You have to read it to believe it.
So there’s my personal ranking of the Anne books. Feel free to disagree, agree, rant or rave in the comments!