In Troubled Times

It’s been another while since I’ve blogged – partly because I’ve been moving house and that takes All The Time, and partly because the world is nothing but emotionally draining at the moment. The horrific events in Charlottesville and Barcelona are only the latest in the wave of terrible WTFery that 2016-17 have brought the world.

It has been hard to keep pushing forward, and I don’t have any solutions right now. But I do have a few reading suggestions that might help you gather your strength and wade back into the fight.

 

Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide

The excellent anti-hate group Southern Poverty Law Centre published a guide to ways to help in the face of actual Nazis marching the streets. If you’re feeling powerless, this is an important and inspiring read.

 

The Hate U Give

It is not even a small exaggeration to say that this is one of the most important books published so far in the 21st century. Angie Thomas’ Black Lives Matter-inspired story is essential reading.

 

The Good Immigrant

An anthology by some absolutely fantastic writers, this book explores racism, Othering, and other issues that have played an enormous role in the world going to hell.

 

Things are exhausting at the moment, but whether your actions are big or small, whether you’re marching or lobbying or just listening to marginalised people who are being harmed by far-right bigotry, they count. Don’t give up.

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My Fave Female Villains

Sorry for the radio silence throughout July – a combination of work and moving house (more on that later) has kicked my arse, and I’ve spent most of the past month too exhausted to focus on anything beyond “carry box from here to there”. It hasn’t left much time or energy for blogging.

Hopefully, though, the busy period is out of the way – and at least I’ve had a chance to catch up on my books, TV shows and podcasts over the past month. I’ve also been thinking (although no more than usual) about female characters, and particularly female villains.

Female villains often get the short straw, at least compared to their male counterparts. Like the ‘strong female character’ (which I guess they are, although from a different direction to the one you’d expect), they often have to fit a very restrictive and specific set of roles. Female villains get to be either dangerously sexy, or repulsively grotesque; either lonely and outcast (and therefore vulnerable to affection) or prettily popular (and therefore in need of knocking off their pedestals). If the protagonist is a man, he must either be attracted to or despise the female villain; if the protagonist is a woman, she must prove that she’s a “better” woman than her nemesis, usually by being more modest and chaste. (Of course, this is assuming the protagonist is straight – but then, LGB protagonists usually crop up in better-written stories).

Some female villains, though, get to break this mould, escaping from the restrictions of the ‘(bad) strong female character’ and becoming interesting and nuanced people in their own right. Here are a few of my favourite bad women.

 

Pearl from MST3K

Who would have thought that a show where three guys (well, one guy and two guy-coded robots) sit around making silly jokes about bad films would have such good female rep? Okay, Pearl is a pantomime villain, but in exactly the same way as her male predecessor. I’ve never caught a single joke from the boys about the fact that she’s a woman – and a woman who doesn’t fit conventional American TV beauty standards, at that. Pearl’s behaviour comes under fire much more than her appearance, and she follows the rather male-orientated tradition of “bumbling inept evil scientist” without her failures being put down to her gender.

 

Dr Caldwell from The Girl With All The Gifts

A far more serious (and far more competent) evil scientist than Pearl, Dr Caldwell brings one of my favourite narrative dilemmas into the zombie-apocalypse novel The Girl With All The Gifts – she’s cold, she’s merciless, but she’s right. Dr Caldwell is neither a femme fatale nor a grotesque monster; instead, she’s a single-minded scientist with a strong sense of her own self-importance who may actually be humanity’s last hope – and the fact that she has to kill children to get there doesn’t faze her one bit.

 

Ursula from The Little Mermaid

I know what you’re thinking – a Disney villain?! Surely the female Disney villains are the go-to examples for the ‘lonely, ugly and bitter’ stereotype?

Well, not Ursula. Yes, her character design was intended to fit the Disney trope of “ugly = bad” – but Ursula laughs in the face of that “ugly” label. She knows she’s fabulous, and makes it clear to everyone around her that she’s entirely comfortable in her own skin. (In fact, it’s only when she forces herself to conform to Disney beauty standards that she starts to lose her grip). Ursula doesn’t want to be young, popular, or the fairest of them all – her ambitions are far grander, and far more political. Her Machiavellian manipulation of the other merpeople mean that she comes within a tentacle’s reach of ruling the seas, and Disney cannot give her her own solo film soon enough.

 

The Raven from The Adventure Zone

No picture of The Raven, because she’s from a podcast and I don’t want to nick someone’s fanart, but trust me when I say that she’s a brilliant character (as are all the characters in that show, to be honest). The Raven is like the inverse of Dr Caldwell, filling another character role that I love – a good person who’s doing bad things, for what even they would have to admit are bad reasons. She holds a city hostage to the power she’s gained through the use of a horrifying magical artefact – and she’s also one hell of a chariot racer.

 

I know I’ve missed out so many good female villains (if that’s not a contradiction) – if you have any favourites of your own, share them in the comments!

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Survive and Thrive: The #YASurvivalGuide event

On Tuesday, I braved sunshine, sweat and the Oxford Tube to head down to Waterstones in Kensington for an event I’d been looking forward to for ages – A Young Adult’s Survival Guide, with the four fantastic authors Non Pratt, Holly Bourne, Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen (who is too cool for Twitter). I’d been looking forward to the evening for ages – especially as I’d been lucky enough to be selected as a winner in the Walker’s Books giveaway, and had brought my shiny new Truth or Dare book and necklace along with me.ya01The city outside was sweltering, but the shop itself was cool and air-conditioned. I grabbed a glass of water, found a seat, and watched the authors (and a visiting Barry Cunningham) gather at the front.

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I couldn’t wait to hear from the authors – I’m already a big fan of Holly Bourne and Non Pratt’s work, and while I haven’t yet read any of Lucy Ivison or Tom Ellen’s books, their new novel Freshers is now on its way to my reservation shelf in the library. (It was so hard not to just buy everyone’s book on the night, but I’m moving house soon, and I already have more books than I know what to do with. No matter how beautiful they look…)

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The talk was set up as a panel discussion, but it felt more like a chat between friends at the pub. The authors talked about their books, then moved on to their uni experiences (which involved swapping some stories that I’m not sure I should share, but let’s just say that kissing can be a risky business).

It wasn’t just talking, though – a first for any book event I’ve been to, there were also games, which were amazing. The first was a round where the audience read out real or made-up university societies, and the authors had to guess which. The last one in particular made me giggle, as they discussed whether the ‘Viking Society’ was real or fake – as a former member of Oxford’s equivalent re-enactment group, I knew full well that yes, there are some people who like to spend their weekends dressed up like it’s 800AD and hitting other like-minded people with blunt swords.

The society discussion turned to the presence (or absence) of feminism societies, and Holly Bourne passed around one of her resources that she uses for school visits – the Feminism Bingo card.

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I got all but one of them, which would be great if it wasn’t actually completely terrible.

The final game – and my favourite – was Truth or Dare, involving pre-written truths and dares. As many of them had been written by seven-year-olds, they were largely quite adorable – one of the best being “What’s the hardest maths you can do?” The recurring “What do you think of Non Pratt?” also raised a lot of laughs, as did the dare ‘Become an egg’, which Non carried out with aplomb.

The evening ended with a signing, and with me gushing over Non Pratt and Holly Bourne in probably an extremely cringey way. I left the shop with the high that I always get when I’ve been to a really good story-focused event – and enough inspiration to write a good 700 words of Sigyn on the bus journey.

Truth or Dare is next on my to-read list, with Freshers following after. I can’t wait to get stuck in.

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Two Kinds of Sprint

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. No real reason why – just work, life and writing taking up more time than I’d expected, as they do. Plus, I took up a new hobby, one I never ever thought I’d even try – running.

hated running in school. Hated it more than I could possibly describe. The best thing about slicing the end off my finger while I was in Guides (it grew back) was that my injury meant I got out of cross-country running for the rest of the term, in case my elevated heart rate caused me to bleed through my full-finger bandage. After leaving school, my exercises of choice were swimming, fitness classes, dancing and walking – I even avoided running for buses if I could possibly help it.

But not so long ago, I got to a point in Sigyn where I realised the story I was writing was trying to tell me something. In the same way as my early fantasy stories told me that I secretly wanted to learn swordfighting, and Spider Circus told me that I really wanted to learn to climb (something that’s still on my list), Sigyn told me that, like my heroine, I really, really wanted to run.

I started Couch to 5K about ten weeks ago, feeling pretty sceptical about the whole thing. There was no way I could ever run for 30 minutes – me, who had been such a terrible runner in school that a PE teacher had explained to the rest of the class just how bad my times were. I’d probably just end up being able to run for slightly longer than never and build a tiny bit of stamina, right?

This shaky, sweaty picture is of me last week, when I finished my final 30min run in the Couch to 5K podcast series. I haven’t made it to five kilometers yet, but I can run for half an hour and not feel like I’m about to die afterwards, something I never ever thought I’d be able to do. Since then, I’ve been trying to boost up my distances and times – and on 9th July, I’m going to be running in the Oxford Race for Life (do sponsor me if you can!)

And, as if to match the real-world running, I’ve rediscovered writing sprints (thank you, MyWriteClub, you brilliant website). I’ve written more in the past couple of days doing writing sprints than I managed to write in entire weeks beforehand. With my heroine running on the page, and me running out here in real life, I feel like I’m finally making some progress.

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Duck Duck Goose

There’s a certain danger in going back to places you loved when you were little. Sometimes they’ll have changed – either for the worse, or for a better that is still upsetting just because it’s so different – and a cherished memory will be pushed aside by disappointment.

This was a worry I had when I went back to Wigginton Waterfowl Sanctuary, where my grandparents used to take my brother and me when we were small. But I was willing to take that risk in order to cuddle ducklings.

As it turned out, there was no risk at all. Wigginton was exactly the same as I remembered. It was still small and friendly, still run by the same owner, and still filled with plenty of small, fluffy animals that you can pick up and cuddle.

I went with my boyfriend, my brother, and my sis-in-law. We were the only people there who hadn’t come along with small children in tow, which made us feel slightly self-conscious, but not enough to turn down the opportunity to hold some of the Sanctuary’s residents.

The ducklings were very lively, and needed to be swaddled in a blanket so they didn’t get too overexcited.

The chicks…not so much. This one fell asleep as I was stroking its head.

As you can see, being a resting spot for a chick was a real hardship.

I also got to make friends with this little chap, who kept headbutting me and trying to burrow under my hands.

After we’d done a good few rounds of cuddling, we went outside and met some of the sanctuary’s other residents.

Then it was time for one last duckling cuddle before we had to go. This little one ate a beetle and I had to wipe the remains off his beak, like he was my duckling baby.

In other news, I now plan to adopt a duckling as my baby.

Wigginton was a wonderful place to spend an afternoon, and I’m so glad that it was still as I remembered it. I can’t wait to go back.

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Twice Upon a Time in Oxford

Recently, I went to two writing-reading-story-wonderfulness events in Oxford. The first was a talk held at Blackwell’s, the only shop I’ve ever been in that feels less ‘shop’ and more ‘home’. The talk was called How To Write YA Fiction, and featured two of my favourite authors, Melinda Salisbury and Kiran Millwood Hargrave. The third speaker was Samantha Shannon, who I can’t claim as a fave yet because I haven’t read any of her books – but she’s next on my list, and I’m sure I’m going to love her work as much as everyone else in the room. I won’t recap the talk too much, because it’s brilliantly broken down in the blog I linked above, but (even with an annoying bout of anxiety getting in the way) I can confirm that it was a fantastic evening. It was wonderful to sit there and soak up the thoughts and insights from three incredibly talented authors, all of whom have an unmistakable passion not only for writing, but for the whole world around it.

The second event was the total opposite of the first – OxCon. Instead of soaking up a writing atmosphere, I, along with my bestie and Footloose co-conspirator Emily Brady, were in creator-mode for the whole weekend, selling comics and talking to our fellow geeks about our work (as well as a whole load of other topics). The con didn’t seem to be as well-attended as last year, and there were a lot of very slow moments – but there were also some absolutely wonderful highlights. The best was when a young reader who’d bought some of our comics last year came up specifically to find us so that she could read some more – it was brilliant chatting to her and her mum about the story and hearing how much she loved it. We also sold a set of our ‘character archetype’ badges to two members of an improv team who were planning to use them for a game that they’d come up with on the spot – and, towards the end of the last day, we also got to chat with the Sixth Doctor himself, Colin Baker.

Story World is a hugely varied world, that works in ways far beyond the act of just sitting down and writing, but I wouldn’t trade being in that world for anything. Even if I do need about three flasks of coffee to get through a small local con.

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Brave, Kind and Real: Teenage girls in Broadchurch

(This blog contains minor spoilers for Series 3 of Broadchurch)

I watched the final episode of Broadchurch last night. The three series have been compelling, with strongly-written mysteries and, mostly, interesting characters (the third series could have lost Mark and Beth Latimer without any significant change to the plot). Some of the most interesting and best-written of these characters were the three I’m going to talk about in this blog – Broadchurch‘s three teenage girls, Daisy, Chloe, and Leah.

Outside of YA novels, teenage girls often get terrible representation; we’ve all seen them portrayed as shallow, giggly, and stroppy, more likely to roll their eyes or scream “It’s not fair!” than be given any kind of character depth. Broadchurch could easily have fallen into this trap, and made its three significant teen girl characters stick to the stereotypes. Instead, though, it gave us three strongly-written individuals with the same kind of nuance as the rest of Broadchurch‘s cast.

Leah Winterman, whose mother Trish is brutally raped in an attack that forms the central plot of series 3, is shown as supportive and mature, being there for her mother during her darkest moments and mediating between her bickering parents even while she herself is still hurting from their separation. Even so, Leah isn’t written as ‘wise beyond her years’, but instead like many of the teenage girls I know – caring, kind, and strong even when vulnerable.

These traits are also apparent in Chloe Latimer. Still adjusting to life after the death of her brother Danny at the beginning of series 1, Chloe demonstrates an incredible level of unselfishness and empathy. Like Leah, she supports parents going through trauma, and does her best to hold her family together; she also steps up for others, helping Daisy Hardy in her time of need. Chloe’s strength doesn’t stop her from showing vulnerability; instead, her wavers and dips are a part of her strength, showing how she’s affected by the terrible things she’s suffered and how, nonetheless, she keeps on going.

Daisy initially seems closer to the mainstream media teen girl stereotype; her interactions with her father, DI Hardy, often seem antagonistic and petty. As series 3 goes on, however, we learn that Daisy isn’t being stroppy just for stroppiness’ sake; instead, she’s awkward, unhappy, and going through some traumatic experiences of her own – in this case, dealing with the aftermath of having private photos stolen and shared by boys at her school. The series not only refuses to victim-blame Daisy, placing responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the thieves themselves – it also shows her reaction as realistic, understandable, and sympathetic. If I could make a change to the series, I would have shown Daisy choosing to stay in Broadchurch for herself, instead of being made to stay by her father; however, the fact that Daisy isn’t demonised for any of the choices she makes is refreshing.

The teen girls in Broadchurch are given a freedom to be individuals, and a nuanced range of portrayals, that we don’t normally see in mainstream TV. On top of this, they’re set up alongside a cast of well-written and believable women; brave and cowardly, kind and cruel, funny and dour, the women and girls in the series are very different and very real. Broadchurch‘s girls and women sidestep the trap of the Strong Female Character, and instead show us women and girls as people, as flawed and individual as the series’ boys and men.

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