Thursday, 13 March 2014

Smoking Kills. Fiction Tells…

This week as I sat at home writing, windows open for the first time this year, the sun wasn’t the only thing drifting in to my room with a view. The words “it is an offence to smoke on New Street Station” occasionally joined the sun, distracting me momentarily from the world of my novel.

“It is an offence to smoke on New Street Station.” New Street Station being the train station outside. On New Street Station, I asked myself (and my social networks.) On. Not in? How strange a message to broadcast. A friend echoed my thoughts, which had centred on a lone figure, standing on the roof of the under-construction complex, smoking in the one place where it is openly forbidden. My imagination filled in the rest rather swiftly.

If you ever wonder why sometimes I seem absent from the real world, or why a task can be lost in a moment, and a moment can stretch to several, this is how my mind works. I see a snapshot and it grows, whether I consciously give it fuel or not. Thus those ten words and the momentary distraction become 800 words of story.

The Secret Rooftop Smoker inhales, not leisurely, but not over rushed. There is still time for him to finish his cigarette before he leaves, still time to overcome the ten minute interior maze that will take him from his rooftop to the platforms below where his train will depart in precisely twelve minutes and forty-five seconds. Still time for a few more drags, a few more precious lungfuls of nicotine and the delicious substances that accompany it. Still time to take those few prized moments of secret freedom and deduct them from the sum of his life.

The day is warm, the sun caressing the back of his neck where he stands atop Grand Central, the workmen and commuters streaming beneath him like ants. Look at them, he thinks. Look at them, wreathed in the smoke of a hundred smokers polluting one another in the confines of the station. Look at them, too scared to break the rules, too cowardly to embrace the rooftop freedom that he so richly enjoys. Too scared to smoke on New Street Station.

A quick glance at his watch checks the countdown. Eleven minutes and eighteen seconds. Still time. He places the cigarette between his lips and breathes in once again, the corners of his mouth ever so slightly turned up in a smug smile. Still time. He need not be one of them.

He should have known it was too good to be true. The crash of a door and the simultaneous flap of wings break his reverie. Ten minutes and fifty-seven seconds. He looks up and his eyes fix on black uniforms, grey eyes, red fire extinguishers. The Smoke Policiers. How they found him, how they knew he was here, he will never know. But found him they have.

Ten minutes and forty-seven seconds. Ten went by as the reality of his situation sank in – just over ten minutes until he had to be on his train and leaving the station. A ten minute maze to journey. Two Smoke Policiers now obstructing his only route to the maze and thus the platforms beyond.

Secret Smoking Man drags on his cancer stick as he has never dragged in his life. No point hiding what he is doing up here on his rooftop. His secret haven will be forever blocked to him after this day. Might as well enjoy it to the last. Nine minutes and two seconds. His window of time has passed.

The Smoke Policiers advance, not leisurely, but not over rushed. They know, as he does, that there is nowhere for him to go. No way out of this and the punishment that will follow. The penalty for smoking on the station is rumoured to be harsh. Of course none have ever broken the rule before… or have not survived to speak of it. Eight minutes and five seconds.

When his last drag is dragged and the red tip of his cancer stick become uncomfortably close to his fingers, he drops it onto the domed top of John-Lewis-under-construction, lifts a booted foot, grinds what is left of his last pleasure onto the gritty surface beneath and exhales his last mouthful of tainted, forbidden smoke. Delicious. Seven minutes and twenty-eight seconds.

There is nowhere for him to go. No way out of this. The Smoke Policiers still block the exit. All around him a drop. To what? To the east and west, platforms. To the north and south, skyscrapers. All around him, as far as he can see, traffic, buildings, hills, and also to the west, two Smoke Policiers, disturbingly close now. Nowhere for him to go. Time ticks on. Six minutes and fifty seconds.

Secret Smoking Man considers for a moment handing himself over. After all, he chose this. He broke the rules… knowingly and willingly. He should face the consequences. Six minutes and forty-two seconds. He could almost reach out and touch the Smoke Policiers, they have drawn so close now.

Instead he turns to the east putting his back to his enemy. One step, then another. Then many in quick succession as he runs… jumps… Six minutes and twenty-four seconds. His aim is true. The train looms below him. All he need to is land, wait for six minutes and seven seconds and he will be gone from the Smoke Policiers, gone from Grand Central, gone from the ants and the cowardly. Elation fills him.

Five minutes and fifty-nine seconds. A rogue seagull takes flight, startled into movement by the Smoke Policiers leaning over John-Lewis-under-construction and watching Secret Smoking Man's fall. The seagull crosses Secret Smoking Man’s flight path, the collision sending him off course.

Five minutes and forty-eight seconds. He makes the platform… but not his train.

The Smoke Policiers nod to one another, a lesson to the ants well taught. Secret Smoking Man heralds their message in blood as the onlookers learn.

Smoking kills. Do not smoke on New Street Station.

Elloise Hopkins.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

When Libraries Were…

A library used to be a quiet place; so quiet you were afraid to cough or rustle papers, so peaceful you could lose yourself in there for hours, either in a world within a book or by devoting yourself to study without the fear of distraction or human disturbance. A library used to be a place without interruption, to think and rest and read and be.

The Library of Birmingham – which I have blogged about not entirely favourably before – is a different kettle of fish, one that makes me wonder whether those libraries of the past are dead and gone.

Twice recently, once at lunchtime, once in the evening, have I curled myself up into a chair in the lending library – and here I won’t harp on about the fact that the chairs are too low for the tables so sitting up properly and working/typing is a challenge – and attempted first to read a book and then edit some of my novel.

Now here’s the problem. This library (or should we really call it a tourist attraction?) is not quiet. It is not peaceful. It is not a haven where reading or working are easy things to do. It is loud. It is as busy on the inside as it is on the outside. None of the separate areas of this fantastically designed building are fully enclosed, so the noise from the cafĂ© above and the shrieks and the sound of children charging around in the kids’ section below are a terrible assault on the concentration. It feels so wrong that I’m struggling to explain it. It was as though I was trying to read whilst sitting on the edge of an adventure playground. 

Now I have no doubt that somewhere in this library there must be a quiet section but I’ve not found it yet, and if I do I suspect that like everything else in there it will be less than functional as a library in the way we have always understood a library to be.

Even something so simple as collecting a reserved book now involves a ten minute wait while the staff have to head from the desk to a different floor to collect it.

And did I mention before that there is not enough seating in there? Did I? When that was one of the main selling points of relocating to such a large building without increasing stock? Not enough seating. And what there is is either bulky and awkward to position comfortably, or too low to be able to stand up from easily for those of us unenthusiastically advancing in age.

You can see I still have my issues with the library, and as time goes on and I try more and more to use it as a library, those issues are increasing. I wanted to love this place. I wanted to be proud of it and treasure it always. So I will keep going there, and I will keep trying to use it as a library, in the hope that somehow our current strife will be reconciled.

Elloise Hopkins.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Please excuse me while I'm dressing...

I'm giving my blog a little makeover.

Bear with us while we rearrange some things.

Elloise Hopkins.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Irritation of the Day: Unmayo…

Light mayonnaise. Or as I like to call it ‘unmayonnaise.’ Never before have I tasted a light/diet version of something that was so entirely dissimilar to the original that it seems farcical to use the same name.

Nothing about light mayo makes me want to eat it. It has that gloopy, too-white appearance that tells me that no eggs, olive oil, mustard or any proper mayo ingredients have gone into it, and the texture is just bizarre. The way it clings to a knife is just plain wrong.

Why do we have this obsession about making diet products that are so strange in taste and appearance that they are barely edible? And who are the people that tolerate them? When diet alcohol came out I laughed. When I first tried light mayo I spat.  Diet coke makes me grimace. However you look at it, the end result is the same. Light mayo is just not mayonnaise… and that’s a fact.

Elloise Hopkins.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

So That Was 2013…

For the last few years this post has been a summary of the year and the grand totals of my books read, words written, and so forth. And if I had written this a few months ago, it would have been the same. Unfortunately, the latter part of 2013 went rather off the rails and so I already know that were I to count up the number of books read, words written, reviews posted, etc. they would all be a lower number than last year. I went quiet. And this is why…

The first half of the year was going fine. I frantically finished off my MA coursework and waited for the results. I settled into my new job and reconnected with old friends. I graduated. I enjoyed a glorious summer and found love for England that I had not had for many years. I swam, I socialised and found myself really enjoying life.

But it was not to last. We all have darkness in our past, things that have happened to ourselves and to those we love. Some are worse than others. Some leave far more of a shadow within us. Some we shake off. Some we pretend are not there and carry on relatively unaffected. Some lie seemingly dormant until we are at our weakest, and then emerge to taint the happiness we have found.

I’ve never been one to willingly or openly talk about my feelings, never wanted to burden others with my darkness, never wanted to spend any more time dwelling on the bad than is necessary. But towards the end of this year, it caught me. Once again, but for the first time in a long time, I find myself unable to sleep peacefully, agitated with everything around me, losing any love or connection with this world, and the terrible things that happen in it to people who do not deserve it.

But this is not a blog to further depress me, or anyone who might read it. It is not a blog to highlight my disappointment with all the goals I didn’t achieve this year, all the records I didn’t break, and all the things I didn’t get done. Because to walk that path would be to never emerge from it.

No. This is a blog to kick myself up the arse as I have many times before. My darkness will always be there. I cannot change the past, nor can anything I do now erase or heal anything that happened in it. But I can remind myself that I am alive. I chose this. On those days when I didn’t want to wake up and face the next one, I did. On those days when I felt no desire for anything and took no pleasure in anything, I eventually did. And I will again.  

2013 may have gone off the rails towards the end. There may have been a lot of hiding from the world and self-soothing with alcohol. Late nights and ill days. But haven’t I been here before, and survived? Haven’t many of us? And we are still here, pressing on, day by day, finding little things to cheer us, because to give in would be too easy, too weak and above all else, too selfish.

It was not an easy year, and no doubt the next one will have its fair share of challenges. But through it all there will always be good books to read, good coffee to drink and beautiful places to visit. There will always be people who are willing to listen if you let them. And there will always be a brighter day on the horizon.

So I put a difficult year behind me, and I welcome the next one with hope. Hope that I, and others, will be able to emerge from their shadows once again and bask in the warmth that is life, and art, and beauty. Beneath those shadows lies a strength at the heart of all of us. The challenge is to find it. 

So my wish for 2014 is that we all find that strength, and live to spend another day in the light.

Elloise Hopkins.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Book Review: Prince of Lies...

Night’s Masque Volume 3.
By Anne Lyle.

Mal is back in London with Sandy, although daily it seems his twin is becoming more skrayling and less the brother he knew and loved. But there are bigger things to worry about. The guisers must be driven out of England. Mal will have to warn the skraylings of the trouble his actions in Venice brought and seek their help to rid the land of threat. Unfortunately the guisers are not easily identifiable, so before they can beat them, they will have to find them.

Coby and Sandy are still guarding the precious soul they picked up in Venice and keeping the secret very close to their chests. The separation from Mal while he is on his next mission, however, is taking its toll on Coby; she longs to be part of the action just as much as she longs to keep them all safe from it. Magic, romance, Shakespeare and disguises all play a part in this conclusion to the Night’s Masque trilogy.

Prince of Lies picks up slightly farther on than the end of book two with the characters back in England, and overall there is a more settled feel to the narrative throughout. Like its predecessors the essence of the book relies on tension and the sense that danger is constantly right in front of the characters or just around the corner. The fight sequences in particular are detailed and well portrayed.

Since her in-depth development earlier in the series, in this volume Coby feels very much relegated to the background, playing the part of Mal’s distant companion and Kit’s keeper rather than being particularly core to the action and story herself. Mal is certainly very much back in the centre of things, and though he is an entertaining and exciting protagonist, the gap left by Coby’s back step is noticeable.

The large focus on relationships in this volume – in particular that of Mal and Coby, and of Erishen’s place in all their lives – whilst increasing the reader’s emotional connection to the characters in general does slow the pace. A new point of view character introduced in part two changes the dynamic of the story and opens the narrative to aid this for the latter part of the book. The conclusion is no means lacking in pace or action and delivers a satisfying finish to the story whilst very much leaving the possibility of future adventures.

Elloise Hopkins.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

World Fantasy Convention 2013, Blog Two…

Day two kicked off with a panel on worldbuilding “The Best of All Possible Worlds” with Robin Hobb, Hal Duncan, Patrick Rothfuss (who has the most awesome laugh by the way), Adrian Tchaikovsky and Robert Silverberg and moderated by Ellen Kushner. The essence of worldbuilding is that the devil is in the details, and there is a balance to achieve between providing the reader with enough details to bring the world to life around them whilst not ‘data dumping’ them with enough details to bore them senseless.

The key is to establish those things such as economic situation and currency, class, politics, geography and so forth in the world so that none of these aspects inadvertently become a hindrance to the story because they have not been considered. The basic necessity of worldbuilding is to make it believable and plausible and leave enough space for the reader to fill in aspects that are unnecessary to the story themselves.

Next I went to some readings and as it turned out they were all extracts from forthcoming pieces. Trudi Canavan gave us the enticing opening of her new series due to come out May 2014 and told us a little about the worlds and characters in that. Then onto Scott Lynch with a brief, animated performance from Wes Chu to begin with. Lynch’s extract was from a short story which will be in a forthcoming anthology and he gave us a glimpse of a world and characters as rich as those in the Gentleman Bastard Sequence. After that it was Joe Abercrombie’s turn to read an extract from his forthcoming book, which is aimed at younger readers though is evidently no less lacking in conflicts and shocks.

My final panel of the day was hugely entertaining – “Elvish has Left the Building” with Trudi Canavan, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Tad Williams, Adrian Stone and moderated by Stan Nicholls.

This panel discussed just what epic fantasy is and established that its key tropes will never change – scale, complexity and depth of story, for example. There was a lot of discussion about Tolkien’s domination of fantasy vs. ‘quieter’, smaller, sword and sorcery books. Interestingly the panel did also delve into the accessibility of science fiction to a wider audience through different media (you can be a science fiction fan without having read any SF books) compared to fantasy whose fan base has pretty much always come from avid readers.

And so the discussion ended and my motivation level shot up as it always does at these events – it is great to be surrounded by likeminded people and talented people who enjoy what they do and remind me why I want to be part of this industry. This was the best convention I’ve been to so far and well worth the cost of the trip and braving the terrible weather in Brighton for. 

Now, books to read and books to write… back to life.

Elloise Hopkins.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

World Fantasy Convention 2013, Blog One…

Division appeared early on and seemed to be the theme of the convention, though all in a light-hearted and intelligent manner. First up was during a panel entitled “All But Actors on a Stage: Creating Memorable Characters” with Fiona McIntosh, Robin Hobb, Stephen Gallagher, Suzanne McLeod, Jasper Kent and moderated by Thomas F. Monteleone.

The opinion that science fiction is driven by plot and fantasy by character was raised and bandied about a bit before Robin Hobb provided several strong examples of character led science fiction that pretty much blew that argument out of the water, although it was an interesting way of looking at the perceived differences between the two.

A panel with diverse beliefs certainly led to an animated discussion that was worth watching. You can make your own decision about which side of the argument you are on but it was fascinating hearing about how the panellists begin their approach to a story and how a character forms for each of them. Fiona McIntosh describing how her characters in The Lavender Keeper grew from a sprig of lavender was an excellent way of reminding us that we all approach writing differently and can take inspiration from anywhere.

From there I went straight into “The Play’s the Thing: Style or Substance in Fiction” with more division becoming evident from the offset. This time it was genre fiction vs. literary fiction with Jack Dann, Ian R. MacLeod, Geoff Ryman, Lisa Tuttle and moderated by Ellen Kushner.

The two sides of this argument were boiled down to plot vs. no plot, good characters vs. good prose, with literary fiction being hailed as having enviable, beautiful prose and genre fiction being way ahead on narrative and characterisation. The panel discussed which was more important. Well, both of course. What’s the point of having beautiful prose if it does or tells nothing?

My first day at wfc13 ended with the mass signing which – though not something I have ever attended before, and with full lighting in the hall, lots of cramped bodies and white tablecloths it did feel a little more academic than atmospheric – was a great opportunity to chat briefly with authors, get books signed and meet randomers in the many queues I found myself standing in.

More than anything the mass signing was a reminder of how friendly and approachable the authors and the other people who attend these events really are. It may not seem like it to newcomers; at times it may feel daunting and cliquey, but just put yourself out there and go for it. It’s also a great reminder that the authors love to hear that people enjoyed their work – after all, they have sweated, toiled and battled the dreaded writer’s curse over it.

Elloise Hopkins.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton…

The National Indoor Arena, Birmingham. Crowds of gothic-esque fans, some in elaborate fancy dress, some exhibiting subtle touches of admiration for the films of Tim Burton that are being celebrated by the BBC Concert Orchestra and Danny Elfman himself. A live orchestra complete with choir, young soprano boy and a Theremin (an electronic musical instrument controlled by the player’s hands without any physical contact) assemble on stage. An extravaganza begins.

Music from all 15 of the films these two geniuses have collaborated on over the years was played by the orchestra, having been adapted into Medley’s by their original composer. A big screen accompanied the music, showing clips and montages from the films and a selection of incredibly powerful pieces of Burton’s concept artwork, although rather cleverly it did go blank for part of each film’s section to allow the focus to switch to the musicians and the energy on stage.

The highlight has got to be Danny Elfman’s live performance of Jack Skellington’s songs from The Nightmare Before Christmas, and an encore of the fabulous Oogie Boogie’s song where he threw himself completely into the character. He danced, sang and acted all with great gusto, and I had to remind myself that he was also the composer – a highly talented man all round.

Yes, so he missed his cue for What’s This?, but that just made the whole show feel more personal and reminded us that he is human after all. The song was re-started efficiently and he gave an incredible performance, singing in time with the film clip of the song. Bonus points must also go to the conductor, John Mauceri, who in the encore juggled a microphone to sing the part of Sandy Claws, danced, and put on a Santa hat, all while keeping the orchestra in time with one hand. Memorable moments.

The Nightmare Before Christmas aside, we were reminded how many excellent soundtracks have been produced that perfectly complement the films they represent. Hearing the Batman/Batman Returns music whilst looking at Burton’s evocative Batman sketches was out of this world. His visions of The Joker are possibly the creepiest and most captivating I’ve seen.

The musical highlight for me was Edward Scissorhands, a film that I become too emotionally involved with at the best of times, but seeing and hearing the music performed just a few metres in front of me with Edward ice sculpting on the screen gave me chills and brought the tears to my eyes more so than ever before.

I came away from the show knowing I had witnessed something very special, something that I wished I could watch again and something I know I will remember forever. Every time I see one of the films that were represented I know I will be transported straight back to last night, straight back to the show and remember all the excellent details and unique touches that made it one of the year’s highlights.

Elloise Hopkins.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Graduation, Falmouth, September 2013…

There were many moments of finality during my Master’s Degree. This was the greatest. I studied Professional Writing with Falmouth University alongside a full time job for a little over two years, so the whole experience was a major juggling act, frantic at times, stressful at times, and looking back now I realise it was very much a marathon of deadlines and assignments and research and cramming my life and my day job alongside it. There were honestly many moments along the way when it felt like my passing the course and managing to keep up the required pace was an impossibility. But I made it. I finished. I reached the end.

When I say there were many moments of finality, the whole course was really a constant stream of beginnings and endings, whether it was starting new modules or stories, or reaching the end of projects and assignments and drawing a line under them before starting the next.

Handing in the final project in February this year was one such moment, arguably the biggest as it was a culmination of many months’ work and a lot of sacrifice. Waiting for the result equated to a nerve-wracking couple of months, and then when the result came in and I found out I had passed the course there came another moment of huge finality.

But it wasn’t until I attended the graduation ceremony in Falmouth last week that I felt any sense of closure with the course. Having been so focused on it for so long, since handing in that last assignment I have felt a little in limbo – as though I am just waiting for the next challenge and the next deadline to be announced. I’ve continued with my personal projects but I’ve felt a little on edge, the back of my mind always wondering if there is something crucial that I should be doing but have forgotten about.

It wasn’t until I walked across the stage adorned in all my academic finery, shook hands with the university’s Vice-Chancellor, and headed back to my seat and my classmates clutching a scroll, with a huge smile on my face, that I realised the MA is finished, I have graduated, and can close that chapter of my life with pride. I made it.

It was a hard, busy road to have walked, and as well as teaching me how to successfully navigate life in a full on balancing act, it has taught me so much about myself, my writing, my passions, and my desires, that I can’t imagine where I would be right now if I had not made that application back in 2010 and driven myself through the course.

I can’t possibly express how much of a positive impact it has had on my life in any coherent form, nor take the time to describe in detail just how much I have taken away from my studies. (Suffice it to say it is more than a branded paper bag and a rather funky wooden usb stick!) You have to go through something huge, something that you truly put all of yourself and your energy and your resources into, and succeed at it, to have any idea of the breadth of emotions that you go through in doing something like this and come out with on the other side.

It is a chapter that is now closed, and I owe a lot to the people who encouraged, cajoled and offered emotional support or a good, critical eye to me through it all. 

It is a chapter that is now closed, and the next chapter will prove whether I can now translate all I have learnt and all I have gained into a series of novels that will bring as much pleasure, surprise and excitement to others in the reading as they do to me in the writing.

Elloise Hopkins.