Book review – The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane coverThey say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and while it isn’t why I decided to read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, there’s no denying the shiver of pleasure I felt whenever I glimpsed it. Featuring the silhouette of a skinny boy swimming in a fathomless ocean, it led me to expect a protagonist with the bravado and wildness of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan.

Far from it. Gaiman’s hero is an ordinary man remembering being an ordinary boy, and that, without doubt, is part of the beauty of this tale. When a lodger his parents take in dies, the boy, who remains nameless throughout, meets the three Hempstock women for the first time – Old Mrs Hempstock, Ginnie and Lettie, marvellous, resourceful Lettie who seems to be eleven years old, but answers only with a smile when asked “How long have you been eleven for?”

Gaiman weaves magic into the story with deft matter-of-factness. The boy takes it in his stride, with a child’s acceptance that the world is, of course, filled with things he doesn’t understand. He reads voraciously, mainly his mother’s old novels crammed with children foiling spies and criminals, and relishes simple details such as sleeping with the windows open so he can listen to the wind and pretend he is at sea.

When the lodger commits suicide something is stirred into wakefulness and needs to be bound to its place. Lettie takes the task on, and brings the boy with her into a place with a sky “the dull orange of a warning light.” It’s a journey which leads a mass of horrors that Gaiman refers to subtly enough to require us to do some of the imagining, the neatest way possible to ensure we take on the boy’s terror as our own.

A bold thread to the tale reminds us that being scared is something that comes with age, with knowledge, so that only the very young are truly unafraid. “I was no longer a small boy,” says our protagonist, ruefully. “I was seven. I had been fearless, but now I was such a frightened child.”

There’s a skill to perfectly balancing dread, suspense and beauty in a fairytale. Gaiman manages it with enviable ease, often offering  comfort in the form of food from the Hempstocks – paper-thin pancakes blobbed with plum jam, honeycomb “with an aftertaste of wild flowers”, drizzled with cream from a jug. It’s at once utterly, earthily bucolic, and curiously reminiscent of the meals eaten by fairies in the stories I read as a child.

The horror comes in the form of the unnamed creature who hangs in the sky like “some kind of tent,” with a ripped place “where the face should have been.” Cleverly though, that’s far from the worst of it, as Gaiman gives her human form, then lets her get the boy’s father to do terrible things.

“You made my daddy hurt me,” the boy says, and she laughs, then declares that she never made any of them “made any of them do anything.”

It’s a chilling revelation, this idea that however much she may have encouraged, or even cajoled, the deeds committed came from some dark place deep inside the boy’s father, not from the monster’s will.

And then there’s the ocean, at the end of the lane, that resembles a duck pond yet contains all the depths of the universe, and, it seems, all its possibilities too.

A beautiful book – grotesque and magical – that every adult should read, if only to remember the brave, frightened children they once were.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is published by Headline and is available to buy from Amazon.

To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Enter Mslexia’s short story competition

Button on Kilve Beach cr Judy DarleyMslexia’s annual short story competition for women writers is open for entries, so now’s the time to search out and polish up your plots!

Ty Newydd

Tŷ Newydd Writers’ Centre

The first prize is £2,000 – one of the biggest prizes available in the genre – and includes two optional extras: a week’s retreat at Tŷ Newydd Writers’ Centre in Wales, and a day with a Virago editor. Not too shabby!

Second prize is £500, 3rd prize is £250, and three runners up will receive £100. All of the winning stories will be published in the June 2015 issue of Mslexia.

Stories must be no longer than 2,200 words. The shortlisted entries will be judged by novelist, short story writer and essayist Alison MacLeod.

Last year’s winner Jackie Brewster said, “I’ve been floating on a little cloud ever since I received the phone call. I thought it was good enough to enter, but I never dreamed it was good enough to win.”

Francesca Armour-Chelu, the 2013 winner, credited the competition as the reason she found an agent “after years of rejection letters.” How’s that for an incentive to enter?

The closing date for the competition is 16 March 2015, so there’s just time to get your entry together.

You can find full details of how to enter at www.mslexia.co.uk.

Free – a short story by Dominic Bond

Bird Girl Etching by Laura RobertsonThe following story was submitted in response to the writing prompt Bird and Girl, which featured and etching by Laura Robertson, shown above.

 Free by Dominic Bond

When the music starts, she new it was time to rise. Pulling back the curtains, she saw a low line of blue mist rising gently above the soft green landscape beneath. The top of the sun emerged above this, deep orange emanating from its edges. The first smoke bellowed from the roof tops surrounding the tower, a ritual each day never lost.

The bird continued to chirrup. She looked it in the eye, the bird going quiet. She watched it briefly before the door began to open. A guard came in with a bowel of fruit and some water.

“You okay?” the guard asked her.
“Yes, I am” she replied.
“It will soon be over. What do you want to do with this bird?”
“I want it to watch.”
“What?” the guard asked, looking her up and down.
“I want it to watch, then it can be set free.”
“Whatever, I’ll be back shortly”. He left quickly.

She sat down on the bed, taking some papers out from under her bed. In there were some paintings she had done. It was the same horizon, in different colours, changing as the seasons had changed. Then there were some letters she had prepared for different people. She put them in a bag, hoping they would end up with their intended recipient.

Soon the sun was out fully. She looked out at the landscape she had loved her whole life, saying goodbye to those things she would not see again. Their was a folly in the distance that had been such a good friend to her, the lake where she had watched her body grow, her horses enjoying the rising sun.

She took a glance out of the window. The platform was in place and a crowd was forming. She went over to a mirror, combing her hair. Then the door opened.

“Now, ma’am, it’s time” the guard informed her.

“Really? Okay, let’s go”.

She picked up the cage, the bird jumping around, unsure what was happening, and followed the guard down the stairs. They came to a large door, which opens, the sunlight burning on her eyes. Adjusting to the light, she saw the crowd, cheering and throwing their hats in the air. They went on to the platform. She saw the priest, and offered him the cage.

“Please,” she asked him, “when this is done, let her go, I want her to enjoy the same freedom about to befall me.”

“If you want freedom, you better hope that God will show you mercy” the priest told her.

“He knows. Please, let the bird free.”

“As you wish, ma’am.”

She leant down, putting her head on the block. The executioner took his place. The crowd went silent. Then the wings of a bird interrupted the silence, dancing through the sunlight.

Dominic BondAbout the author

Dominic Bond lives in Sutton in Surrey and likes to write about the world he sees before him.  He says: “To me, there are few pleasures like a moment of inspiration.”  Dominic has had poems appear on the Poetry Super Highway and Word Bohemia, and has had flash fiction published by the Pygmy Giant.

Among trees with Grace Aza-Selinger

Afloat by Grace Aza-Selinger, mixed media

Afloat by Grace Aza-Selinger

It’s often struck me while meandering among trees how sculptural many of the natural forms are, and how aesthetically pleasing the dappling of shade and sun, how exquisite the precision of a leaf or bark motif.

Artist Grace Aza-Selinger takes this delight in forest settings a step further, by turning her glimpses of trees into mixed media works of art that draw you in, time and again.

Grace never had any doubts about her ambitions in this vein. “I don’t remember not wanting to be an artist,” she comments. “It has always been something I knew very strongly about myself.”

Lull, mixed media on canvas, by Grace Aza-Selinger

Lull by Grace Aza-Selinger

As a teenager, Grace battled to overcome low self-esteem. “It took me a while to gain the courage to really pursue my goal whole-heartedly,” she comments. “It was the best decision to go to Falmouth to do the Foundation course there. I loved every minute of it and went on to have a big solo show in ‘The Biscuit Factory’ in Bermondsey. I would say that as an artist you have to create your own luck, really put yourself out there and be confident about it.”

She adds: “My family and friends are very supportive of my work. I think it can be hard if you don’t have people around you wanting you to do well and progress in your career.”

Grunewald Forest Scene 4 by Grace Aza-Selinger

Grunewald Forest Scene 4 by Grace Aza-Selinger

I can’t help but wonder if this shyness contributed to Grace’s passion for trees. “I think my love of trees stems from my childhood and magical walks around Windsor Park. It is a sense of getting lost in a forest and the sense of exploration.”

Belair Park 7 by Grace Aza-Selinger

Belair Park 7 by Grace Aza-Selinger

There’s often an impression of water in Grace’s works too, sometimes overtly so that light and branches seem reflected. I find that looking at them, I can conjure up the damp, rich smell of woodlands, and that sense of moisture hanging in the air.

“It is always a really satisfying feeling when you have laboured over a painting from conception to completion and someone else responds to the same qualities that initially inspired the work,” she says. “For example in one of my more abstract pieces, someone said it reminded them of going underwater diving and looking up at the light. It was the same quality of being in a place that is still and quiet whilst mesmerised by something beautiful that I wanted to evoke. My friend who is a singer described the creative process in the same way.”

Grunewald Forest Scene 5, mixed media by Grace Aza-Selinger

Grunewald Forest Scene 5 by Grace Aza-Selinger

A wide mixture of things drive Grace’s work. “Sometimes it can be seeing an exhibition where I really respond to the images. Often in my work it’s being surrounded by nature and seeing something that really strikes me.”

Grace also likes to defy expectations in her work, often using unconventional materials. “I enjoy using spray paint – it has a great consistency and is wonderful for blending colours together. I think it also adds an immediacy to my work.”

Tree Within Tree by Grace Aza-Selinger

Tree Within Tree by Grace Aza-Selinger

Grace says that the observed and the imagined come together naturally in her work. “The more practice you have at observing the more you are able to imagine and invent different qualities in your work,” she says. “Forests very beautiful places. When you look up at the trees you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.”

Find Grace and her work at  www.graceaza-selinger.com.

Know an artist you’d like to see showcased on SkyLightRain.com? Give me a shout at judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Midweek writing prompt – the exhibition

Totterdown Exhibition_Shelby Mansell

Photos © Shelby Mansell

Part this actually happened to me. Imagine your protagonist enters a cafe in their neighbourhood and discovers an exhibition of photographs. As they wait for their coffee, they scan the portraits, mildly curious, and their gaze focuses on a face they know intimately well. That of the love of their life, captured in black and white, in the midst of all those strangers…

Totterdown Exhibition2_ShelbyMansell

© Shelby Mansell

Now add in some sizzle and give the exhibition a leading title – such as  “people who betrayed me” or “people who saved me.

What does your protagonist do?

BTW: The exhibition pictured here is The Locals by Shelby Mansell. You can find more of her work here.

If you write something prompted by this, please let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. With your permission, I’d love to share it on SkyLightRain.com.

Book review – The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono

TheManWhoPlantedTrees coverThis beautiful little book turned up in my Christmas stocking this year. As slim as it is, with wood engravings by Harry Brockway and an illuminating afterword by the author’s daughter, it really is a book to be savoured.

The story tells of a chance encounter the narrator has in a desolate, mostly treeless, landscape with a solitary shepherd. He watches the gentle man sort a pile of acorns. “As he did so he discarded those that were too small or had a tiny split; he examined them minutely.”

He then took his chosen acorns, dipped them in water and set out into the wilderness.

And so begins a slow, unfurling tale of a man who plants trees in their hundreds over the span of a lifetime. As the narrator gazes on in wonder, the man covers acres of arid land with seedlings that become saplings that gradually become a forest, altering the landscape, the climate and the temperament of the people who reside there.

Yes, a fable, and one to warm the heart, but, as the author’s daughter Aline reveals in her afterword, one that also gained life of its own. Apparently, readers of this story all over the world have believed it to the extent that wooded areas in countries from Finland to New Zealand have been attributed to a lone shepherd with a quiet, but steadfast, ambition. Continue reading

Travel workshop hosted by cruiseline Noble Caledonia

Hanseatic Noble CaledoniaTravel writing is definitely one of those pastimes that blurs the boundary between work and play, making it one of the best ways to make a living. Beyond that. it’s also a wonderful way to store up memories of some wonderful experiences!

If you’d like to hone your ability to write travel blogs and travel articles, keep a travel diary or even just record your travel experiences for yourself or others to read, a travel writing workshop from Silver Travel Advisor could help.

Silver Travel Advisor writing courseAlthough the site itself is aimed at travellers aged 50+, the workshop is open to aspiring travel writers of all ages.

The travel writing workshop takes place on Wednesday 22 April 2015, hosted by cruiseline Noble Caledonia at their offices in Belgravia, Central London. The course fee is £65 per person, including tea, coffee, biscuits and sandwiches

The event will be led by cruise writer Deborah Stone and travel journalist Nick Dalton, who have years of experience of writing for national newspapers, including the Telegraph and The Times, as well as various magazines and travel guides.

The course runs from 10.30am-2.30pm, and will cover motivations and inspirations for travel writing, and a review of sample articles to be discussed for their content and style. There will also be the opportunity to write creatively, as well as tips and advice on setting up your own travel blog and the chance to ask your own questions.

Places on the workshops are limited, so make sure you book soon by emailing service@silvertraveladvisor.com stating the number of places required. For further information, visit www.silvertraveladvisor.com/workshop.

A story, a poem and a literary event at Foyles

Woman preparing pineapple, Borneo cr Judy DarleyMy very short story ‘Towelling Robe‘ has been published by The Pygmy Giant, a brilliant online home for UK flash fiction and very short non-fiction. You can read it here.

And my poem ‘Strays’ (sort of pictured left – you’ll understand when you read it) has been picked up by Literary Bohemian and will appear on the site soon. Such lovely company my words are keeping these days!

Plus tomorrow I’ll have the pleasure of taking part in ‘A Hint of Crime’, a literary event at Foyles Bookshop, Bristol. I’ll be reading my tale Flyleaf, which appropriately enough begins in a bookshop. Other readers include Suzanna Stanbury, AA Abbott, Tim Kindberg and bestselling crime writer Sarah Hilary. Ooh, and it’s free, so do come along (4-6pm) if you’re in the area!

Skylines with Susie Ramsay

Bristol Harbourside by Susie Ramsey

Bristol Harbourside by Susie Ramsey

Much as I love the countryside I’m often drawn to cityscapes as much as landscapes, particularly those that show off quirky architecture and harbours. Bristol-based artist Susie Ramsey makes beautiful use of both these elements in her paintings and pen and ink drawings, capturing the beauty of cobbled streets and narrow waterways. Continue reading

Midweek writing prompt – bird and girl

Bird Girl Etching by Laura RobertsonThis week’s prompt is inspired by this rather dreamy etching from artist Laura Robertson.

Such a gorgeous image. To me it seems reminiscent to ancient fairytales in which a brother or sister is turned into a bird or beast, leaving our heroine to find a way to save them, and in the process herself.

“I read a quote in a book many years ago – ‘only a bird in a gilded cage,’” says Laura of the piece. “It set off my imagination with images of a sad lonely bird in a cage and a sympathetic lady looking at it.”

What’s happening in this scene? Can you spin it into a melancholy fairytale with an uplifting resolution? Or is your impulse to write something far jollier, or far darker?

If you write something prompted by this, please let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. With your permission, I’d love to share it on SkyLightRain.com.