Monday, 22 August 2011

Vibrant Voice: Review of Six Days by Philip Webb

As a creative writing teacher I'm so often asked about the secrets of constructing the perfect plot: it's a core area of fiction writing and it's an aspect that new writers (and experienced ones!) find daunting. However, another crucial area when it comes to creating reader-involvement is the use of voice. If you get this right, the reader is fascinated and feels an emotional connection with the story. Voice can replace ten pages-worth of external description of a character: it takes you straight into the character's mind, attitudes and soul. It's about immediacy and intimacy, it's about contact.

It's interesting, then that my two most recent reads have worked for me by just that: a convincing, engaging, often quirky use of voice. (They're also good on plot too, by the way!)  The first is Florence and Giles, by John Harding - and I'll be saying more about this book very soon as John will be guest-posting on Literascribe. The second is Six Days by Philip Webb, which I won in a prize draw run by those lovely people at Chicken House Publishing. So thanks, Chicken House, for a great reading experience!

Six Days is a YA fantasy set in a dystopian future: the heroine, Cass Westerby (described by one of the other characters as 'Mad, brave, headstrong'), lives in a post-apocalyptic London, a London being torn down and chewed up, bit by bit, by 'scavs' - scavengers and their crushing machines, frantically searching for a lost artefact with amazing powers (and you always need an artefact in a sci-fi story ...). I found the descriptions of a London slowly vanishing, building by building, landmark by landmark, into the jaws of industrial destruction, very moving, very graphic. Next time you're near the Houses of Parliament, you'll value them more, I assure you. As buildings, anyway.

The scavs are searching for the artefact while under the control of the Vlads, their Russian masters. Cass has become inured to their bleak existence and has a can-do pragmatic approach to life: no point repining, just get on with things. Her brother Wilbur, though, is different: he's a dreamer and he is searching for his own clues as to the artefact's location. Cass feels a mixture of tenderness and exasperation towards him, all through the novel, and that impatience with a sibling, mixed with total loyalty, is one of the convincing aspects of the characterisation.

Well, whaddya know, Wilbur's on the right track: they meet some strangers and join up with them on a quest which has all the usual selling-points, not least the ticking-clock aspect. Yes, it's called Six Days for a reason. The story broadens out historically and cosmically and those days start passing more and more quickly - can Cass and Wilbur save the world?

I thought the book was very well-constructed and its tone meshed poignancy and humour effectively. There were moments of real beauty and of grotesque horror. Philip Webb comes up with some original variations on familiar riffs from science fiction and the plot was fast-paced and gripping - I also felt he left the way clear for a sequel and I really think that would work.

But I started this review with the idea of voice - and it was that more than anything that brought Cass to life for me. She speaks directly to us in an impatient teenage semi-Cockneyese (ain't, gunk, gob, pigging, gaff, bonce, flippin', zit, gut rot), full of physical texture, slang and some swearing, her wise-cracking asides and exclamations used as a reinforcement of her own courage. The slang is very contemporary and there were occasions where, given the fluidity of street-language, I wondered if the notion that it would continue so far in the future was altogether convincing. Ultimately, though, I could hear her, I could believe in her: the carapace of cynical bravery, the exasperated love for her brother - they were all there from page 1. She blusters and threatens but by page 14 she's risking her life for Wilbur. When she rescues him and he bursts into tears, she says,  'And I don't know whether to shake him to death or hug him.' I think we all, parents or siblings, have been there! (Well, not clambering about on the face of Big Ben, but grabbing your kid as they dart out onto the road - that kind of thing.)

The book has wit, pace and pathos - I recommend it. It will make you chuckle and it will make you cheer: go Cass!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Cornwall Inspiration

The Men an Tol
Cornwall. In the early days of our relationship, my husband would often rave about holidays he'd had there and tell me how much I'd like the place. Loyalty to my own Scottish cliff-and-sea-and-fishing-village heritage made me baulk at this: nothing could be more beautiful than the Moray Firth and the sunsets and the wild white horses in the bay. Nothing.

Pendeen coastline
Ten years ago, though, we had our first Cornish holiday, staying at Hayle on St Ives Bay. I was hooked, I was smitten, I was entranced - and have been ever since. And this is no disloyalty to Scotland, because on every subsequent visit to West Cornwall, I've been struck by the similarities in the landscapes and seascapes, the seafaring heritage and the mindsets of the people who in times gone by had to struggle for their living in a place of wild and often hostile beauty.

The Longships Lighthouse at sunset

Sunrise over Hayle
There are differences of course: the temperature, for a start! The old engine houses of tin mines dotting the landscape. The extraordinary proliferation of ancient monuments. The granite outcrops studding hillsides clad in gorse and bracken. But the beaches of St Ives and Carbis Bay, Porthkidney and Hayle Towans are like those of Cullen and Sandend and Lossiemouth: palest gold and silky. There is the same sense of being under a big sky and at the end of things - it's a pioneer feeling, somehow. It's more accentuated, though, when you stand at Cape Cornwall or Sennen and know that nothing will get in the way if you start sailing for America. That's an extraordinary sensation. There's the fluctuation between grey and gurly seas and Mediterranean waters in rich tints of jade and aquamarine. There's mizzle and mist that come down in an instant to soak and bewilder you. There's the disappearance of the everyday world - this is so precious - because once you cross into West Penwith or motor down the Lizard, you've put yourself out onto a limb of the world and you've entered a place which takes you out of your quotidian routine. It puts you in touch with the timeless.

I certainly don't want to come across as all New-Agey because I'm not that sort of person - but at the same time there's the temptation, to which so many incomers have succumbed, to chuck aside all normality and practicality, to up sticks and take refuge in this magical location. So far my rational self has  prevailed: I have the sense to know that I couldn't make life work for me here, not really - and I would miss Oxford terribly.

The Merry Maidens in a mist

I'm posting a very tiny selection of the many photos I took, some of which have great significance for my current writing. I also include the Merry Maidens circle looking very spooky in the mist and an offering of a potato and some corn in a hollow at the centre of that circle, deposited by those who are indeed New Agey. In St Ives I very much enjoyed meeting up with writers Marion Whybrow and Sarah Duncan. At the Penzance literary festival we attended an evening at the Admiral Benbow in Penzance to enjoy Cornish tales, readings from an old miner's diary and the marvellous singing of traditional songs by Boilerhouse, a quartet of male singers.
We had coffee in the lovely airy white cafe of the Tate Gallery in St Ives and we had pub lunches at the Tinners' Arms in Zennor (where D.H. Lawrence once drank) and at the Old Inn in Mullion. We walked the cliff paths and we breathed in the air as if to aerate polluted alveoli and cleanse them for the city winter.

We revisited old haunts and explored some new ones - and all the time inspiration and ideas rose like a silent stream within me. Cornwall does that to me, every time.

St Ives and Godrevy from the Tate Gallery

Monday, 8 August 2011

If you've emailed me, try again!

This is just an interim blogpost, now that I'm back from Cornwall - I'll be posting in full about our holiday there very soon. However, I just wanted to say that if in the past couple of weeks you tried to email me, either directly or at fictionfire (, some of my emails have been irretrievably lost while I was away, so would you please resend your message?

Thanks! And here's a lovely Cornish photo to keep you going!