Struggle (Free Flash Fiction Story)

Struggle (1)

If you’ve ever seen your own mother cry, you’ll know how awful it feels. Especially when you’re the one who is causing her pain. She wept into her palms, great, racking sobs, refusing to look at me. A shadow had fallen across my father’s face and my stomach tightened at the thought of seeing him cry, too. Of seeing my broad-shouldered hero dissolve into tears just like his wife.

He didn’t cry, but wrapped an arm around my mother’s shaking shoulders.

Then we were moving house again, just like that, to a new city and a new life, leaving my betrayal trailing behind us as though by moving across the country the problem would go away. It hurt me that they thought it was a problem, something to hide.

After unpacking my stuff, I walked past our new bathroom. My dad was standing there, shirtless, the tiniest beer belly resting on his belt. He was shaving. He turned to glance at me, one eye spotting me hovering in the doorway, his razor on his chin and frozen on the spot. I gave him a half-smile, shoving my hands in my hoodie pocket.

He hadn’t said much during the drive to our new home. Mum had ranted and raved, screaming about the betrayal of her only child. How she’d kick me out of their home if I were old enough. Dad had stared straight ahead at the road, his grip tight on the steering wheel, his eyes narrowed.

His eyes weren’t narrowed now. He held up his other hand. A second razor.

I shuffled towards him and took it. “Give it a try,” he said.

I squeezed next to him at the sink and looked at our reflections. The shaving foam was stark white against his dark skin. I stood behind him, pale in comparison, taking after Mum’s side of the family with an ivory shade.

“Water.”

I rubbed warm water over my face. “Shaving foam,” Dad reminded me.

I squeezed the thick, creamy stuff onto my hands and piled it onto my cheeks and chin. It looked messy, like a screwed up Santa Claus beard. I gave a shy grin and the foam wobbled, stuck to my skin.

I brought the razor to my cheek and brushed it against my jawline. The blade ran along my smooth skin, collecting the foam as it went. Dad carried on shaving his own stubble, before shaking the creamy bristles into the sink. I copied him, watching as the globs of white slid down the porcelain.

We were shaving together for the first time.

My new school was just like the others before it; it was bland, boring, with students squinting at me, the new kid. I caught one girl looking at me from the corner, her hair the colour of sunset, her sweet smile catching my eye. Everything else behind her seemed to melt into grey. I almost smiled back.

The teacher paused at my name. “Ashleigh Cunningham,”

“Present,” I replied, my voice sounding even higher as my nerves swarmed inside my stomach like bees. “Just- Just ‘Ash’ is fine.”

The girl jumped, and her eyes widened in sudden understanding. She looked around, flustered. Anywhere but me.

“Certainly.”

I returned home to find my mother weeping again. She was clutching a lilac dress, something I’d only worn once to appease her, her tears dampening the nauseating white lace as my dad sat stony-faced beside her.

“Are you telling me,” Mum gasped between sobs, “that I’m supposed to accept the fact that my daughter is dead?”

“Not dead,” Dad caressed her pale arm. “Free.”

He smiled up at me as I came in, slumping my school bag on the floor. Mum looked up at me with tear-filled eyes, the sky-coloured pools I loved so much.

I thought she would scream again, or throw the dress at me, or tell me to get out. She got to her feet, sniffling, wiping away one last falling tear. “Ash,” she whispered, and her skinny arms embraced me.

“I love you, Mum.” My heart warmed at her hug, her acceptance.

“I love you too, son,” she whispered back.

Spoiler-Free Review: “Wave Me Goodbye” by Jacqueline Wilson

If you’re British and you like books, it’s likely you’ve heard of Jacqueline Wilson. This much-loved children’s writer has written over 100 books now and is famous for characters like Tracy Beaker and Hetty Feather.

I was one of the kids who had some of the book sets when I was little. I had books like The Lottie Project, Double Act, The Suitcase Kid, Vicky Angel, Girls in Love, The Story of Tracy Beaker, and The Bed and Breakfast Star. She often writes books about girls around ten years old who are going through some kind of drama or tragedy, such as their parents’ divorce, poverty, bullying, and the like.

I actually hadn’t read any of Wilson’s books since the 2000s, unless you count re-reading The Illustrated Mum on Kindle a few months back.

It was cool to see that Wilson is still writing, and my dad bought me her 2017 novel Wave Me Goodbye, about a girl who is sent to the countryside right before World War II breaks out in 1939.

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“September, 1939. As the Second World War begins, ten-year-old Shirley is sent away on a train with her schoolmates. She doesn’t know where she’s going, or what’s going to happen to her when she gets there. All she has been told is that she’s going on ‘a little holiday’.

Shirley is billeted in the country, with two boys from East End London, Kevin and Archie – and their experiences living in the strange, half-empty Red House, with the mysterious and reclusive Mrs Waverley, will change their lives for ever.”

A lot of Jacqueline Wilson’s characters are very similar: around ten years old, female, timid, introverted, and often don’t have many friends due to moving around a lot or being considered “weird.” They’re usually creative and good at imagining things. Shirley Louise Smith wasn’t much different. I was more interested in the time in which the story was told; we hear a lot about soldiers’ experiences in World War II, but I hadn’t come across anything from a London child’s perspective before (I’m not saying that this book is the first of its kind, but that it was an interesting change written by one of my favourite authors).

Shirley is sent away on “a little holiday” to the countryside. I found her mother to be an interesting character; strict, strong-minded, and at first, slightly narcissistic, and unwilling to tell Shirley at first that she (the mother) won’t be travelling with her. She gets exasperated with Shirley’s love for reading and wishes to be more “posh.”

I often felt very sorry for Shirley. She considers herself ugly and hates her short hair. She loves to read and often pretends the girls from her favourite book, Ballet Shoes, are around her. She has trouble making friends and is bullied by others. On top of that, she misses her parents terribly when she is billeted. It makes us appreciate how tough it was for the children during the war as well as everyone else.

I loved the characters Kevin and Archie; in my opinion, they made the book’s story stronger. I enjoyed following Shirley on her adventure and was interested in the background of the family they were staying with.

Wilson did a great job of making Shirley relatable. Shirley loves books which are appropriate for 1939 but are also understandable by today’s children, such as old fairy tales like Cinderella, Mary Poppins, and Alice in Wonderland. The language seemed fairly appropriate for the time “cor blimey”/”bally” but I wasn’t completely convinced with Archie; he was supposed to be around three or four years old but he often spoke in longer sentences that I imagine a toddler would usually struggle with. Nevertheless, he was an incredibly cute character.

All in all, I was impressed with Wave Me Goodbye. The ending was nice, although it left a lot of questions open such as the fate of her father. That being said, it was a story about Shirley, not about the war itself.

Overall I give Wave Me Goodbye four stars out of five, although I would rather give it 4.5 as I remained entertained the whole way through and will probably read it again sometime in the future. Nice job, Wilson!

4stars

Get Wave Me Goodbye on Amazon UK
Get Wave Me Goodbye on Amazon US

 

Spoiler-Free Review: “The Queen’s Rising” by Rebecca Ross

Hi, everyone. I just got back from Ishigaki in Okinawa, and it was a few days’ rest I desperately needed. Keep an eye out for photos and blog posts.

While on my trip, I read a book I’d been waiting to read for a while. I’d seen it on Twitter and immediately fell in love with the cover. It was a debut fantasy novel by American writer Rebecca Ross, someone I’ve come to admire deeply. I bought it and read it any spare minute that I wasn’t playing about on the beach or sampling the delicious Okinawan food.

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“Brienna desires only two things: to master her passion and to be chosen by a patron. Growing up in Valenia at the renowned Magnalia House should have prepared her. While some are born with a talent for one of the five passions—art, music, dramatics, wit, and knowledge—Brienna struggled to find hers until she chose knowledge. However, Brienna’s greatest fear comes true—she is left without a patron. 

Months later, her life takes an unexpected turn when a disgraced lord offers her patronage. Suspicious of his intent, she reluctantly accepts. But there is much more to his story, for there is a dangerous plot to overthrow the king of Maevana—the rival kingdom of Valenia—and restore the rightful queen, and her magic, to the throne. And others are involved—some closer to Brienna than she realizes.

And now, with war brewing, Brienna must choose which side she will remain loyal to: passion or blood.”

I felt a pull to this book immediately, and from the first page, I knew I’d made the right choice. Ross writes with flair and explains details flawlessly, using sights and smells, especially, to really suck me into the world without going overboard on description. Brienna was sort of the anti-Mary-Sue; it was refreshing to come across a character who struggled with her pursuits. She was not gifted with art or music like her patron sisters, and eventually chose to passion in knowledge, working hard to catch up to her classmate. This book also defied stereotypes, and things which I thought I saw coming a mile away turned out to be entirely different than I expected. There were also twists that made me audibly gasp, which I think annoyed some of the surrounding travellers.

Some reviewers so far have complained that there was no action until later in the book, but I genuinely enjoyed exploring the world that Ross created, with its scents and beautifully described Magnalia House, the school in which Brienna studied. I don’t believe that all books should have brushes with death to hook you in from the first page, and I was gently seduced into the story. Ross’ prose is just gorgeous. I felt aching in my heart reading this book, an inspiring envy, and was captivated by the story she told.

I recommend this gorgeously crafted novel to any lover of fantasy, who enjoys discovering new worlds and learning rich and unique histories. Although there were several questions left unanswered at the end of the story, this is a fantastic stand-alone tale that I hope every book lover reads. I give The Queen’s Rising five stars out of five.

5stars

Get The Queen’s Rising on Amazon US
Get The Queen’s Rising on Amazon UK

Spoiler-Free Review: “Angst” by David J. Pedersen

Day 39

I’ve just finished reading a fantasy novel called Angst, written by David J. Pedersen.

“When Angst turned 40, he knew it was over. Angst had longed to be a knight of Unsel, to make his mark in history, to be remembered for heroic deeds and wondrous acts. He grew up knowing he was destined for something great, but now it is too late. Not only is 40 far too old to become a knight, Angst is one of the few able to wield “the magics”.”

Most protagonists in fantasy novels are young and gifted, destined from birth to be the hero and saviour of the story – often not relatable at all. One of the first things that draws readers to David Pedersen’s Angst is the fact that the main character is the exact opposite of this stereotype.

Angst is the perfect name for this character: he is unsatisfied with his life, a gift that should have been cherished makes him an outcast, and he spends his life in skull-numbing boredom. After turning forty, he believes his dreams of becoming a knight, and subsequent hero, are over. That is until he draws a sword that has been unmovable for as long as anyone can remember. It just might be up to Angst to get to the bottom of the problems plaguing Unsel… once his back stops hurting.

Angst is just an adorable character. Pedersen cleverly captures the mid-life crisis, urge to become something bigger and better, and the fearless, cheeky flirting of a forty-year-old. It was really interesting how these elements fit nicely into a fantasy story.

The story itself was incredibly creative and I’ll have a hard time forgetting many different aspects of the world of Ehrde, including places, beasts, and the concept of the Vex’kvette. I found that I was carrying the book around with me so I could read it on the train and during my lunch breaks.

There were a few things I wasn’t sure about. Something we find out about Heather, Angst’s wife, could have been foreshadowed, along with several other things. I also couldn’t bring myself to like the character Rose, although that is personal preference because I’ve heard she’s a very popular character. Nevertheless, this was a fun story to read and I look forward to reading the next one! I give this book four stars out of five.

Get Angst on Amazon US
Get Angst on Amazon UK

How to Find Beta Readers for Your Book

Day 33

I’ve been asked by a few people how I got beta readers for A Bard’s Lament. I’m not going to lie; it has been a lot more successful than the previous two times I asked (for different books). Quite a few people volunteered, and to my delight, all of them got back to me with great feedback way before the deadline.

Hopefully, my experience will prove useful for other writers who are trying to find beta readers. Here are some Dos and Don’ts I’ve learned.

1. Prepare a Great Pitch

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A pitch is similar to a blurb; it is several sentences that make a person want to read your book. The pitch tells the person a little about your story and makes them want to know more. If someone is genuinely into the story they will be a lot more likely to read it.

2. Build Relationships Before You Need Them

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Social media is powerful. Facebook groups and Twitter, from experience, have proven to be strongest in connecting with readers and other writers. Engage, chat, get to know them and, importantly, genres they like.

This isn’t to say you should go and introduce yourself to dozens of people you aren’t interested in before you “use” them to do you a favour. Connecting with people potentially interested in your work just makes sense, especially if you’re planning on marketing your book yourself.

3. Ask for Volunteers

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Use Facebook, Twitter, your blog, and any other tools at your disposal to advertise for volunteers. Put your pitch and make it clear exactly what you’re looking for: to give a free book to people who are willing to give honest and constructive feedback.

Only a tiny percentage of people who I thought would volunteer actually volunteered, so don’t get disheartened if people don’t respond.

4. Approach People Who Might Like Your Genre

Very few people are going to make the effort to read your book simply because you wrote it. There’s no use approaching your romance-loving neighbour to read a paranormal horror, or the writer you know from Facebook who specialises in fantasy to read your mystery thriller.

Groups are useful because people who read or write the same genre tend to stick together.

5. Don’t Ask Directly

If you directly message someone and say “HEY! Want to beta read my book?” The person, depending on their personality, will either say yes because they want to, say no, or worst, say yes because they feel they should. An awful lot of time is wasted when you send them your manuscript, they mysteriously disappear or become extremely busy, and you sit there waiting for feedback that will never come.

Instead, say “I’m looking for beta readers for my new book, [Title]. Do you know anyone who might be interested?” If they ask for more information, give them your pitch. Even if they aren’t interested themselves, they might know some readers who might be. This way, you are not upsetting anyone by being pushy.

6. Make it Clear What You Want

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Some readers may be interested in your story, but still say no because they’re worried that they aren’t qualified.

Make a list of questions that you’d like them to try and answer. Nothing technical – that’s the editor’s job. Here are some example questions you can use for your beta readers.

  • Does the story open well? Did it make you want to read further?
  • Does the plot make sense?
  • Is there anything that is unclear?
  • Are the characters interesting? Do you care about them and their decisions?
  • Are there any questions you feel still need answering?
  • Was the ending satisfactory?

Questions like these make it a lot easier for your beta reader and avoids them just telling you things like “Yeah, I liked it,” which may be nice to hear but won’t help you at all.

7. Give Them Enough Time

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After you’ve sent your manuscript to beta readers, give them a reasonable deadline, preferably a couple of weeks depending on the length of the story. I gave two weeks for my 13,000 word story but if you’ve written a lengthy novel, it might be better to give them longer.

If you have a deadline, make it clear to the readers from the beginning so they won’t suddenly tell you they can’t do it anymore. People are busy and remember that they are doing you a favour.

8. Be Patient

It can be easy to start chewing your nails and spam the “inbox” button in your email while you wait for responses. However, it will be quite rare for people to get started right away. Give them a week, or maybe give them several, and most importantly, don’t nag them. There’s nothing more of a turn off than someone pestering you saying “have you finished it yet?”

Making what you want clear and making your book sound interesting and engaging will greatly increase your chances of getting people volunteering to read it! Beta readers are an essential part of self-publishing as they can spot errors before publication and before you fork out for an editor. What kind of book are you working on right now?

Spoiler-Free Review: “Eyes of the Hunter” by Rosa Marchisella

Day 32

‘Sup, everyone! Hope you’re staying warm.

I recently read a book called Eyes of the Hunter, a new fantasy novel by Rosa Marchisella.

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“Prince Erin, heir to the throne of Simanthea, spent a lifetime protecting a dangerous secret no one can know. Not even Caley, Erin’s best friend and devoted bodyguard. 

But even the most tightly guarded secret can’t be kept forever. 

When Caley discovers the depth of Erin’s deception, his rage explodes like wildfire and devoted guardian turns to terrifying bounty hunter. To survive, Erin must outrun the past and evade the Eyes of the Hunter.”

As a lover of fantasy, I gobbled this one up.

After birthing six daughters, Queen Marianna is terrified that if she fails to produce a male heir to the throne of Simanthea, her life will be forfeit. The kingdom rejoices when the birth of a baby boy is announced, and the queen insists that only she care for the baby, whom she names Erin.

She hires a boy, Caley, to protect her son with his life. I truly loved this beginning to the book. I sympathised with the queen, a kind soul who had been basically used by the king “as a breeding mare” for his desire to have a son. Caley was also introduced well, being a shy and quiet boy but delivering when it mattered most. He won the right to become Erin’s guardian.

As a child, Caley was blamed for something he didn’t do and we get a taste of the king’s merciless heart and lack of empathy. When the secret comes out and Erin is forced to run, the atmosphere of the story goes from quiet contentment (if tense) to full-blown excitement and fear.

Caley goes from solid protector to hunter. We see Erin survive, a feat which would not be easy for a pampered member of royalty. However, with Caley’s teachings, Erin can find ways to get through some tough times, which is a little ironic for Caley since he’s now chasing the person he taught.

Rumours fly like wildfire through the land about the hunter, some far-fetched and some not far from the truth, keeping us on our toes as to what Erin will do to shake Caley off, because he always seems closer.

I really enjoyed this book. It was easy to read and Marchisella creates vivid descriptions. I know when I’ve read a good story because my mind wanders to think about the characters at times when I’m not reading, and as this happened a lot, I know the writer did extremely well in creating a world into which I could invest my time and heart.

There were some things that I wasn’t sure about; for example, some skills and knowledge that Erin had were not mentioned before so they could have been foreshadowed. I also felt that another character got the raw end of the deal towards the end of the story but, as we know, life is unfair, and that is possibly what Marchisella was trying to convey.

I recommend Eyes of the Hunter for lovers of fantasy, especially fantasy with rich worlds. I found myself wanting to know more about the kingdoms, what lies beyond the oceans. I’m hoping for a sequel to this engaging tale! Overall, I give it four stars out of five.

4stars

Get Eyes of the Hunter on Amazon US
Get Eyes of the Hunter on Amazon UK

Reading “The Illustrated Mum” as a Child VS. Reading it as an Adult

Day 26

What was your favourite book when you were a child? I remember being about six or seven and getting a box set of Jacqueline Wilson books from my auntie. I read all of them many, many times and ended up getting even more of Wilson’s works. I was a big fan of hers; I still am.

With the Kindle and Kindle app, it’s great hunting down old books you loved and getting them on your e-reader within seconds. I’ve just finished The Illustrated Mum again, but the reading experience was pretty different from when I was eight.

If you’ve never read this book, it’s about a ten-year-old girl called Dolphin who lives with her older sister, Star, and their mother manic-depressive mother, Marigold.

Reading it as a kid, I saw the world from a child’s perspective and completely understood that Dolphin was confused and upset that Star was showing less and less interest in Marigold as she got older, angry at Star for leaving her mother and sister behind, and terrified alongside Dolphin when Marigold had rough spells of drinking or crazy shopping. Dolphin did her best to not let anyone, even her friend Oliver, see just how bad Marigold could get when she was in a state.

As an adult, I felt so much pity for the poor little girl we read about, her youth and unconditional admiration and love for her mother clouding the fact that she was much better off without her. I wanted to take care of Dolphin, to feed her and wash her properly and give her a warm and safe home. Reading as a kid and reading as an adult were two entirely different experiences.

Jacqueline Wilson has a remarkable gift for writing from the perspective of a child who really doesn’t know better. What does a ten-year-old know about bipolar disorder? Or about hospitals? She feels so bad for calling the ambulance when Marigold finally goes over the edge, yet we all know as readers that she did the right thing.

There are a few more really depressing (but awesome) Wilson books that I now can’t wait to read again. No doubt the experience will transform from an adult’s eyes, too.

The Queen’s Alchemist is Now Available in Paperback!

Day 23 [New Year’s Resolution]: The Queen’s Alchemist is Now Available in Paperback!

Hi, everyone! How’s your week going so far?

Though not my debut book, The Queen’s Alchemist is (so far) my only published book on Amazon. After several of my students asked me to give them paperbacks of it, I decided to publish it in print, not just as an ebook. That’s good news for those who prefer paper to ebooks!

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The cover was designed by the talented Victoria Cooper, who creates covers for thebookcoverdesigner.com. You can also check out her Facebook page.

The paperback is just $5.99, and it’s a great stocking filler, so give it a try! Don’t forget to tweet me if you decide to purchase it.

Get it on Amazon UK
Get it on Amazon US
Get the eBook

Think You Aren’t Good Enough? Do it Anyway

Day 20 [New Year’s Resolution]: Think You Aren’t Good Enough? Do it Anyway

Think about that thing you want to do, but you know you never could. What is it? Singing? Acting? Dancing? Growing the world’s largest turnip? Thing is, everyone was here at one point: at the bottom.

With this in mind, I took a leap. I did it. I did it. If I fail, it’s just £40 wasted, nothing too life-changing.

I just bought this.

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And this.

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I’m getting massive anxiety just thinking about it. My heart’s pounding even though I’ve been sitting on my fat bum all day. What are you thinking, girl? Traditionally published? You?

Do you remember when I was talking about rediscovering our love for writing? About finding that pure passion and inspiration without the fear and crippling self-doubt?

I want that again.

I just saw some ads about this new book out by HarperCollins and the hype that was surrounding it. The book isn’t even released yet and she’s got reviews, fans, gushing bloggers, giveaways, and all those things that most of us only ever dare hope for. My despair in my author journey so far caused me to start to believe that “nobody reads anymore, dammit!” We all know this isn’t true, of course.

I’m horrible at marketing. I can’t really advertise things, let alone my own books. When I worked as a sales assistant, I would whisper out of the corner of my mouth to prospective customers, “Sure, this knife has a sharper blade and a higher steel rating, but the £49 set will do you fine. You don’t need the fancy one,” though don’t you dare tell my old boss that.

Deciding to try the traditionally published route isn’t out of laziness, though. I’m not doing it because I want to get out of marketing or editing or cover creation. No, it’s because that when I was a kid I was determined to have a publisher. I just believed it was going to happen for me one day. It’s time to make that dream a reality and stop letting doubt overtake it.

So I think it’s time we just stood up and did it. Today. Now. Not waiting until tomorrow or letting doubt beat down your dreams before you’ve even tried. I usually dislike cheesy quotes, but this one by Suzy Kassem is excellent: Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.

If We Could All Discover Our Love for Reading

Day 19 [New Year’s Resolution]: If We Could All Discover Our Love for Reading

You know, I got so caught up in thinking about losing our love for writing that I didn’t spare a thought for our love for reading. Reading, after all, must come before writing, and one can’t exist without the other.

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Last year, I played a lot of video games. I worked a lot. I bought hamsters. I even wrote a bit. This year, I’m hoping to write one post a day on this blog, among a lot of other things which I won’t bore you with now.

After re-reading the Harry Potter series, I realised with an unpleasant drop in my stomach that last year I hardly read anything at all. There were some indie books, some work-related stuff, and… well, that’s it, really.

I had lunch with one of my students after a lesson yesterday and she was asking me about all these famous western writers, asking if I’d heard of them or read their work. Her eager little face looked so disappointed when I said I hadn’t even heard of most of them. She seemed surprised that I, a native speaker of English, didn’t know about all her favourite novels that she struggled through as a learner of our complex language.

I felt really bad. So I decided this year that I’m going to spend a lot more time reading. There are loads of books in the spare room I bought or was given and never even opened. Worlds waiting to be explored, characters waiting to be known, pages waiting to be turned. I am shocked it took this long.

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We’re so distracted by social media and the busy pace of life that most of us have forgotten what it’s like to curl up with a book (paperback OR electronic; there’s no shame in owning a Kindle). There’s really no excuse; people who claim to love books, yet say they are too busy to read yet spend three hours a day on Facebook, what are you doing? I’m determined not to be one of those people.

So hopefully you’ll see a lot more posts about awesome books in the coming months! After all, what is a writer that doesn’t read?