“He Runs the Moon” Wendy Brandmark (Holland Park Press) – book review

The collection is subtitled “Tales from the Cities”, the cities being early 1970s Denver and Boston, and New York in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of Wendy Brandmark’s characters are in a state of flux, either their lives are about to change or they discover something that could be life-changing and the story stops in time to guide the readers to deciding whether the character would stay or leave.

In “The Stone Woman”, a young girl is afraid of the ‘witch’ in the basement apartment, but, when the girl gets lost, the ‘witch’ comes to the rescue and the girl befriends the Jewish woman who is prepared to tell the girl the truth about her ill grandmother that her parents have tried to protect her from. But the woman won’t talk about the number tattoos on her wrist.

A student, inspired by John Millais’ “Ophelia” is drawn to Pre-Raphaelite-style gowns in “The Denver Ophelia” that she finds in thrift shops in the hope her professor will notice her. However, she discovers she’s not the only one with a crush. Will she see sense or persist in her unrequited love?

A man faces a conflict of loyalties in “The Book Thief” when he discovers his kleptomaniac girlfriend has stolen from his friend’s bookstore.

A teacher of illiterate adults discovers his flatmate has gone back to a lover who doesn’t respect him while one of his students forms the phrase “He Runs the Moon” because he couldn’t find the word ‘sees’. Does the teacher intervene or let his flatmate discover for himself that he’s making a mistake?

Within the brief space of her short stories, readers get to know the characters in Wendy Brandmark’s atmospheric stories well enough to suspect they know which decision the characters will take. The selective but rich details in each story make them distinct and memorable with their characters coming to life. Each story is focused and targeted on its plot so it feels exactly the right length with no story outstaying its welcome.

“He Runs the Moon” by Wendy Brandmark is available from Holland Park Press.
Review of Wendy Brandmark’s novel “The Stray American”

Saboteur Awards Short List Best Reviewer

“The Pursuit of Pearls” Jane Thynne (Ballantine Books, NY) – novel review

Book Cover of The Pursuit of Pearls of Jane Thynne

In Berlin in 1939, actress Clara Vine, who is half English, half German, finds herself cast in “Germania” a proposed history of the Aryan race directed by Leni Riefenstahl. Clara’s grateful for the work as a distraction from the tragic news that Lottie Franke, an aspiring costume designer, has been murdered. Lottie was a student at the prestigous Faith and Beauty School where graduates were expected to marry high ranking SS officers. Clara visits both Lottie’s parents and her best friend Hedwig to pay respects, when she is thrown by Hedwig’s comment that no one at the school seems to be grieving Lottie, Clara suggests Hedwig keeps in touch. Hedwig lets slip that Lottie had a secret lover and had hidden something – Hedwig doesn’t know what – that can’t be found.

Clara Vine is also an English spy tasked with getting closer to the von Ribbentrops to find out what their plans are – it’s an open secret in Berlin that Annelies Ribbentrop is the power half of that couple. British Intelligence are trying to establish whether the Nazis will form an alliance with the Russians. It’s an open secret that Germany is preparing for war. Clara meets Hugh, a tweed-suit loving English journalist who knows of her sister. She also meets Conrad Adler who is working in the foreign ministry on art acquisitions actually reports to Reinhard Heydrich, a sadist head of security and, she discovers has done his research on her. Although her father is a Nazi sympathiser, her later mother had Jewish origins. If those origins are revealed, Clara would be treated as a Jew. Being an outsider but also welcomed by the Nazi elite, thanks to Hitlers’ love of art and Goebbels’ love of film, Clara finds herself an occasional confidente of the wives of the senior Nazis, one of whom warns her that rumours are being spread about her. She also finds out that Lottie’s secret lover isn’t the only one trying to find what Lottie hid. Initially it was assumed to be a jewel because it’s know that it was highly valuable and Lottie was murdered to keep it secret. Can Clara pass a vital message to British Intelligence without her cover being blown and when she doesn’t know who to trust in an atmosphere of increasing paranoia when her life is in danger? Just as she is getting close to discovering who Lottie’s murderer was, she is arrested by the Gestapo and has to draw on her acting skills to survive. A person who has murdered once to keep a secret safe, will do so again and again if necessary.

Although this is not the first book featuring Clara Vine and some of the characters also first appeared in “The Scent of Secrets”, it is not necessary for readers to have read the first book. “The Pursuit of Pearls” works as a stand alone novel. It has the richness of atmospheric details that make Berlin as much of a character of the book as Clara Vine. However, these background details are not allowed to hold up the plot.

Richly-layered, “The Pursuit of Pearls” works just as well as historical fiction as it does an espionage novel. Jane Thynne’s credible leading characters and sumptuous atmospheric details bring Berlin alive. Jane Thynne gives herself space to explore themes of loyalty and betrayal, and how factions within the Nazi party competed with each other so allowing extremism to rise.

In every action she takes, Clara has to thoroughly think through the potential consequences and ensure she has an exit strategy. In a time of paranoia and suspicion, a friend can become an enemy in a heartbeat. “The Pursuit of Pearls” is both a satisfying spy novel and a detailed look at life in Berlin in 1939, with particular focus on the lives of women.

Blog Promotion: getting Poems Published

I’ve been writing a series on Poets and Blogging, looking at whether blogging is right for you, promoting your blog, dealing with comments (and trolls) and other social media platforms if you decide blogging isn’t for you. The best social media promotion isn’t about badgering people to buy your book or pestering people to share your posts, but by getting your poems published and gaining readers. Readers will share poems they enjoy, post comments on them and find your blog because they want to know more.

If you’ve nervous about sending your poems out, consider the following points:

  • Your poems can’t be read if they languish in a file on your computer and you’re the only person who knows they are there.
  • Editors can only select from poems they’re sent – if you don’t send your poems out, they can’t be selected for publication.
  • It’s the editor’s choice as to whether your poems are worthy of publication.
  • It’s not a competition.
  • You’re not stealing a publication slot from someone else – if an editor selects your poem, it’s because it’s a good fit with poems they’ve also chosen. If your poem’s not selected, that doesn’t mean someone else’s poem will be selected to fit that slot.
  • Most competitions and some magazines read poems anonymously so your name won’t prejudice an editor’s or judge’s selection.
  • All published poets had to start by sending out their first submission.
  • All published poets still get rejections.
  • Rejections are part of the process, not something to fear.

Submitting poems

  • Read poetry magazines, select ones that feel like the right fit for your poems.
  • Check guidelines, especially submission windows.
  • If there aren’t any guidelines, standard submission format is a covering letter and the three to four poems you want to submit typed single spaced on separate pages (within the same document if emailing). Ensure your name and email appears on each sheet of your submission in case pages get separated.
  • Double check your poem for formatting, typos, grammar issues and submission guidelines before pressing send or posting.
  • Avoid sending the same poem (or batch of poems) to more than one editor at a time. Most editors do not like simultaneous submissions and poetry readers do not want to read the same poem in several different magazines at around the same time.
  • Don’t send one submission to editor A and wait for a response, send several submissions to different editors over a short period. Magazines often only take one or two poems so if you send 6 poems to editor A and 6 poems to editor B, 8 to 10 of those poems will be rejected and up to 4 may be accepted. If you send four poems to editor A, four poems to editor B, four poems to editor C, 6 of those poems will be rejected and up to 6 may be accepted. But choose your poems carefully – randomly targeting editors is a waste of time and effort.

If you’re not confident about submitting poems:

  • Find a trusted reader, someone who will give you constructive feedback but won’t rubbish your efforts or give unconditional praise
  • Take your poems to workshops
  • Go to open mic events and read your poems – if you can read your poem in front of an audience, you can place your poems in front of an audience by seeking publication
  • Seek out a mentor – remember most poets are writing around other jobs and may seek payment for their time. If you approach a poet, they are entitled to say no.

If you can share your poems at open mic slots or take them to workshops or ask someone else to read them, you can submit them to an editor.

Articles in the Poets and Blogging series:
Poets and Blogging: is Blogging for you?
Poets and Blogging: Search Engine Optimisation
Poets and Blogging: Promoting your Blog
Poets and Blogging: Managing Blog Comments
Poets and Blogging: Statistics
Poets and Blogging: Alternatives to Blogging

Poets and Blogging: What if Blogging’s not for you?

Blogs can be a great way of demonstrating expertise, providing news, engaging and building a community. But it’s not the only way. When the move from static websites, where browsers could only read what you posted and had to dig out your contact details to email you a comment which you weren’t expected to publish, to social media, where browsers could read, comment and generate their own content, started it was fine to build a social media platform through trial and error because everyone else was experimenting and working towards discovering what worked. But now the internet community is less tolerant of mistakes and getting it wrong can provoke a viral backlash.

Publishers are looking for writers to have an established internet presence. Independent publishers don’t have the budget to help writers create websites or blogs. Most writers don’t have the budget to pay others to do it for them and, in an environment where authencity matters, using a third party isn’t always advisable.

It really is not worth setting up a blog if you don’t think it’s for you or can’t commit to a regular schedule of posting. But there are plenty of other promotional tools in the box.

Email Newsletters

These can be as frequent or infrequent as you like providing you give readers something to read and an opportunity to respond. There are now plenty of e-newletter providers who enable you to produce a professional newsletter with graphics and interactive options that also allow you to manage your subscription list. Do check out the legalities regarding email marketing. You must allow people to opt in, give an unsubscribe option which does actually unsubscribe people and give a postal address (need not be a home address).

The advantages of e-newsletters are their flexibility and you can allow readers to send in items to include in a future newsletter (particularly if you’re targeting younger or teenaged readers).

Facebook Page

These are useful ways of building a community around an author, book or book series. You can post your own news and readers can post questions, share posts, upload images, etc. It’s a good idea to draw up a policy for what can and can’t be posted and establishing that anyone posting needs to show courtesy and be constructive. The page will also have to be moderated so inappropriate content can be deleted.

A Facebook page also has the advantage that you can separate your personal status updates from your writing related updates so you don’t have to extend your friends list to people who like reading your poems but don’t what to know about your social life. You can still share posts to or from your Facebook page where relevant.

Twitter and similar social media

Twitter is great for short updates or posting links to interesting articles/videos etc. The downside is that tweets have a short shelf life so you can’t guarantee that all your tweets will be seen by all of your followers. It’s also critical to share by retweeting others’ tweets or linking to articles/news/etc that isn’t just promoting your work. If you’re seen to be broadcasting (i.e. all your tweets point to your publications, your publisher, your own websites, etc and only about self-promotion) you will lose followers.

Guest Blog Posts

If you can’t commit to a regular schedule of posting blog articles, why not consider offering guest blog posts when you have a book or live event to promote?

Before you approach bloggers, check that they accept guest posts, read a few articles to get a feel for what they do publish (just as you would if seeking to get a poem or story published) and sketch an outline of a couple of blog posts. When you approach a blogger, remember it’s their blog not yours and no is a perfectly acceptable response. The best approach is to outline why your post is suitable for their blog, not list the advantages to you of your post appearing on their blog.

Blog Book Reviews

These many not seem as prestigous as a review in a literary magazine, but blogger reviewers generally have a quicker turn around and the published review is accessable to anyone with an internet connection, not just magazine subscribers. A review of your book on someone’s blog is also useful online marketing material.

If you have a book you’d like to be reviewed, don’t just send the book. Send a request first so the blogger can decide if your book is suitable to review for their blog and also if they have time review it. Remember, it’s their blog so don’t demand a review on a certain date, a speedy turn around or suggest particular points to include in the review.

If you’d like to write book reviews for a blog, approach first with some sample reviews and mention where your reviews have appeared before. It might not matter if you haven’t published reviews before if your sample work is good enough. Like magazines, blogs that publish reviews are looking for someone who can meet deadlines and is reliable.

Marketing In Real Life

Online marketing is a complement to offline marketing so don’t forget press releases, interviews, readings, live events, networking events, literary festivals, etc. Ultimately which marketing tools you use is entirely down to what suits you and what you can do well.

 

The first post in this series was Poets and Blogging
The second post in this series was Poets and Blogging: Search Engine Optimisation
The third post in this series was Poets and Blogging: Promoting your Blog
The fourth post in this series was Poets and Blogging: Statistics

The Social Media and Writers panel event will be at Leicester Writers’ Club on Thursday 19 May 2016 at Phoenix Arts from 7pm. Tickets for non-Club members are £5 on the door.

Poets and Blogging: Statistics

Most blogging packages will provide statistics showing your most popular post, how frequently you post, where your readers come from, how many subscribers or followers you have, how many daily visitors you have and what search terms browsers are keying in to find your blog. In addition you can record how many likes, retweets or shares you got when you promoted an article on social media.

All these numbers are both fascinating and meaningless. Data doesn’t mean anything until you start to turn it into information. If you have a troll, a bridge and three goats, you have the potential for a story but you don’t have the story until you give the goats a reason to cross the bridge and the problem of the troll to deal with. Similarly, you have to find the narrative behind the numbers.

Visitor Frequency

You should have the most frequent visits on the day(s) you post new articles.

If you notice significant clusters of visitors on days you’ve not posted articles, are these visitors looking for new blog articles or is there another reason for their visits? Did you have book published, a poem published, do a poetry reading or have some other event happening on that day which might have encouraged people to check out your blog?

Resist the temptation to change your blogging schedule to suit visitors. Blogging supplements your writing so don’t prioritise your blog over your poems. Look instead to manage readers’ expectations – make your subscription sign up more prominent or mention your blogging schedule on your blog’s main page so visitors know when the next update will be.

Where your readers come from and the search terms used to find you

If most of your readers find your blog through a search engine or via Facebook, then that’s where you need to promote your blog. It might be worth setting up an author page on Facebook as well as your individual profile if that’s where your readers are coming from. Don’t remove your blog address from your LinkedIn profile, but don’t waste time and effort promoting your blog there.

Looking at the search terms people type in to find your blog might be interesting and might suggest article topics, but don’t stray from your blog’s main topic threads and don’t let a couple of individual searchers dictate what you blog about. These people are infrequent or one-off visitors, not your regular subscribers.

Subscriptions/Followers

Don’t worry about the actual numbers here. A popular post may encourage a flurry of subscriptions but then there will be a quiet period where no one subscribes. It’s more important to look at trends: are you gaining subscribers or losing them?

If you are gaining subscribers, which posts attract the most subscribers? If those posts are of a particular style or on a particular topic, consider writing more like them.

Don’t look at subscriptions in isolation from your most popular post or how many shares you get on social media. Your most popular post may not be the one that gets people signing up to subscribe.

If you are losing subscribers or seem to have hit a plateau, it’s time to consider how you are promoting your blog or whether the blog has run its course. If you find yourself asking “What do I write?” or recycling older posts, your subscribers are getting bored too.

Popular Posts

Your blog statistics will tell you which post got the most one-off views.

Your subscription statistics will tell you which posts are encouraging people to read most of your posts.

The shares, likes and retweets on social media show you which posts are most shareable.

Be wary of an old post suddenly gaining popularity. Some spammers deliberately target an old post on an established blog to leave a spam comment with a dodgy link. Sometimes an old post might simply become popular again because of a news item, but this will be a temporary spike.

Your priority in assessing these and deciding which posts you should write is to look at your subscribers (the ones that read most of your posts), the shareable posts (social media promotion by others) and popular posts (one-off visitors who may not read more than that one post).

I find that when I write book reviews, I get more subscribers. When I write ‘how to’ or advice-based articles, I get more social media shares. My most popular post is “How to win poetry competitions.”

I do have a series of posts on a proposal to build an eco-town which was eventually rejected. These posts had a spike in popularity when one English school examinations board set a geography paper with a question around issues concerning a new eco-town. However, school students are not my target audience and this was a one-off spike in popularity for a specific, time-limited reason. It would not be advisable for me to continue blogging about eco-towns because the audience is no longer there.

Therefore, I write a mix of book reviews to attract subscribers and ‘how to’ articles to attract social media shares.

The first post in this series was Poets and Blogging
The second post in this series was Poets and Blogging: Search Engine Optimisation
The third post in this series was Poets and Blogging: Promoting your Blog
The fourth post in this series was Poets and Blogging: Managing Blog Comments.

The Social Media and Writers panel event will be at Leicester Writers’ Club on Thursday 19 May 2016 at Phoenix Arts from 7pm. Tickets for non-Club members are £5 on the door.

“Poems from a Postponed Exhibition” Michael Bartholomew-Biggs (Lapwing) – poetry review

Poems from a Postponed Exhibition Michael Bartholomew-Biggs book coverA series of ekphrasis poems inspired by David Walsh’s paintings of his native Australia. The paintings feature Australia’s hot, dusty terrains and include leafless trees, traces of humans and symbolic images of Christ on the Cross. The poems both reflect on and respond to the paintings without merely describing the paintings, e.g. in “In an arid landscape”

“Painted figures cannot speak
but they can mime and want
stiff gestures recognized.

So extract a narrative
from each now in front of you
and a dozen thens remembered

or imagined down the gallery.”

The readers are asked not just to respond in the moment, but to let the images linger, to build a narrative and continue thinking about the images after the viewing has passed. The reference to the universal language of guesture and non verbal communication is a reminder that it’s still possible for humans to share experiences and stories even when there is a language barrier or verbal communication isn’t possible. The poems invite the reader’s interpretation. There is an atmosphere of timelessness too, in “Rock occurred abruptly”

“Rock was grooved by water’s
long persistent fingers, hollowed out
where rainpools pressed like thumbs.

Rock could mark itself,
as skin does when it’s struck and draws up colours
hidden in the bone.

If signs emerged from rock,
like memories returning unexpected,
could there be a way

to make rock return
a likeness of whatever we might like
to see when out of sight.”

The poem explores the way two people will see the same painting differently because each viewer brings their own memories and emotions to the viewing and so sees the image from their own perspective. To some, a rock will simply be a rock, to others it might link to a geographical or cultural heritage. When moving away from the painting, the viewer will remember it through the filter of their response, picking out the aspects that struck a chord with them. But it’s not just viewers who have this filter, the artist too is presenting their view of the landscape they paint and that too will be distorted by the artist’s memories and experience. In “The blanks of their unpainted faces,”

“To make what seems to be a story
you must dainty-paint the mind behind
their unsketched features and the gestures
in a wilderness suggested
by an artists’s brush. Dead trees
are wrongly labelled totem poles.

Let the painter’s artefacts
and emptiness slide sideways past your gaze.
As memory’s perspective shifts
the paradox of parallax
makes each deeper view reverse
the movement you were following before.”

The final quoted line suggests the artist choreographing the mental or physical movement of the viewer in response to the painting. The collection’s title echoes Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition”, a suite for piano with a short walking refrain representing the viewer’s movement from one painting to the next, the repetition suggesting the viewer is also reflecting on the images just seen. These poems deserve the same treatment. The sparse language still uses echo and alliteration of sounds and the poems are crafted to invite the reader to build their own response. The poems go deeper than just a response to the paintings and complement them, offering perspective and suggesting ways of looking at and thinking about the images created.

“Poems from a Postponed Exhibition” is available from Lapwing Publications.

“Alice” edited by Emer Gillespie, Abegail Morley and Catherine Smith – poetry review

Alice anthology cover image

During the British Library’s ‘150 Years of Alice’ celebration, the idea developed of creating an anthology of poems that responded to both “Alice in Wonderland” and “Alice through the Looking Glass.” Here, Alice grows up, appears on Oprah and finds herself either relieved to have left an interrogated childhood behind or baffled to discover herself an adult. Some poems give voice to other characters. Whichever way you read the original Alice, chances are you’ll find a poem to match.

The ‘drink me’ command on the bottle found by Alice was often used as a metaphor for drunkenness, alcohol shrinking the world, e.g. in Helen Ivory’s “Wunderkammer with Escher Stairs and Cheshire Cat”:

“and there’s always a bottle there for her;
its drink me label shrinks the day
and the cat shapes a cave from her sleeping bones.”

Grace Nichols’s “Parallel World” explores the mixed emotions of a mother watching her daughter grow up,

“And arousing an ambivalence, the queen-bee
in the spider’s web. Who knows whether
she’s usurping predator or trapped victim?

On the verge of waking
you find your clubbing late-night daughter
has shrank into a miniature –

A small Alice standing safely
on the palm of your hand.”

Amali Rodrigo remembers the croquet match and has some useful advice in “How to Manage Your Flamingo.”

“To rouse a drowsy flamingo,
.            put a gerund on its head.
If it gets too frisky,
.            by all means
put it on a leash.
.            But never ever try
to squeeze it in your purse,
.            for you shouldn’t have to shrink
to fit another’s world.”

Richard O’Brien investigates the limitations of being a muse in “Alice Bobs Her Hair”

“a turbid sea of Lizzie Siddal curls
pulling her back into the cramped notebook,
hand clutching at her skirt. A child of six

half-flinching from the lens.
A stamp-case and a sidebar in the Mail:
she’s all grown up. Fidget then flapper,
bombshell then gamine: a girl,
A girl who died aged eighty-two.”

Lizzie Siddal was Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s muse, trapped by his reluctance to marry her and immortalised in Milton’s painting of Ophelia where she posed in a bathtub. Milton failed to notice the lamps that were supposed to keep the water warm had gone out and, needing the money, she was too frighted of disturbing the image she’d created to tell him. Her resulting pneumonia nearly killed her. Her own art and poems have been constantly overlooked: a muse is not required to speak in order to inspire. Her job is to be the canvas.

The poems within “Alice” engage in a dialogue with the original, as ekphrastic poems should do. They use the original text as a starting point to explore an angle, a character or an aspect of the story and create something new. Even though many of the scenarios will be familiar to readers of “Alice in Wonderland”, the poems in “Alice” offer a new way of looking at the original and reward re-reading.

“Alice” is available via Abegail’s Morley’s The Poetry Shed.

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