Reading versus Non-Reading

The other day my daughter and I were consulting together on the lack of vocabulary possessed by my youngest granddaughter, who is not a reader. When talking to me she frequently looks blank and asks her mother to interpret.

Yes, maybe I do sometimes complex words liberally peppered with proverbs with which no teenager today is familiar with – but I love them, don't you? They are so apposite - especialy things like 'it's an ill wind' and 'don't cross your bridges' - and they save aeons of explanation. Like learning languages - if you sow well, life becomes quite simple. But making a visit to Spain with a knowledge of five words, plus please and thankyou and where is the railway station, and my goodness, you will be up against a brick wall! 
Of course you could always pretend to be American and subscribe to that ancient quip, 'Americans dont learn languages, they just speak louder!'
Apropos of my granddaughter's blank face on hearing proverbs I tried out one at the supermarket which was exceedingly appropriate. Doing my bit for the planet by refusing to buy a plastic bag, I was attempting to place 7 pieces of grocery into a bag that fitted only 4. So I quoted, 'It's like trying to put a quart into a pint pot.' And, yes, the young guy at the till did look completely blank but of course politely so!
As a consequence of not reading books, my granddaughter is now finding English classes difficult, and written exams impossible as she frequently fails to grasp the nub of the question. And, yes, no doubt she is dreading the forthcoming GCSE exams.

(As for a career, she might well become a politician; they always fail to understand questions asked of them, restating their point of view in a roundabout way as if it is a 'cure-all.'

My grandson happened to be another non-reader, both he and his sister obsessed with tehnology, and he particularly to computer games. (He was operating a mobile phone at two.) Fortunately, several years ago now, when asked to choose a book from the school library, he spotted an old copy of A Fishy Tail. He snatched it up, calling out, 'My grandmother wrote this,' and took it back to class to read.

'Yes, I know, it's fantastic, but he didn't know that. It was the one-upmanship of having an author grandmother that he liked - it definitely enhanced his street cred. Now he reads under the covers by torchlight ... every night. Loved the first two Jack Burnsides, not so keen on the third, and has read all the Harry Potters. I bought him Diary of a Wimpy Kid for Christmas and continues from strength to strength.

On the other side of my argument, this weekend my eldest granddaughter (who loves Shakespeare) was talking about a ‘book’ that ‘literally saved her life’, telling me I should read it. What did I expect? Certainly not what I got. Published on a fan-fiction site, devotees upload their stories as they write them, snippets, chapters, punctuation and spelling mistakes galore. Readers pick them up and follow, eagerly awaiting the next chapter. The ‘book’ I was given to read had 336,000 hits and yet it was as far from being a readable book as it was possible to be.  

To begin with, I thought it a play. Except it wasn’t. The only way I can describe it is: an ungrammatical series of jottings, in which expletives ruled the roost, with absurd situations created just for titillation.

For me, fan fiction sites (and there is a huge number) expose a worrying trend in popularism – is there such a word – with authors appealing to the lowest common denominator. It is also a terrible indictment of our education system. At least forty years ago, people could write a fair hand with words spelled correctly and in the right place.

I can hear the outcry now. Does it matter? Surely you should be delighted that someone is actually taking the time to write?

Yes, I should and that is my dilemma. As I said in my opening sentence, part of me shouts, No while an equal part shouts, Yes, it does matter.  

The English language is one of the richest anywhere, so why are we restricting our vocabulary to 200 words, half of which comprise 4 letters and are banned by the BBC before the 9pm watershed?

I confess to finding profanity belligerent, aggressive and in most cases, both boring and unnecessary. (My grandfather used confound it and the word bluebell as an adjective ... that bluebell of a postman. I neither find expletives funny (as comedians on the television believe) nor clever (as writers on television series seem to think) nor an example to our young. I read on-line that J K Rowling and Piers Morgan swapped expletives. (It may well not have been true – fake news is yet another worrying problem.
Indeed, expletives are so widely used that no one notices or comments any more, using one particular word as noun, adjective, and adverb. (Indeed, if I asked for a different adjective would they be able to provide one?)
My problem with this  ... if you hear something often enough, you begin to accept it as normal. Once it becomes 'normal' you then look for new ways to push the boundaries of ‘acceptable behaviour’ even further.

Today I watched a rerun of an interview with JB Gill of JLs because the 2020 Chelsea Flower Show is cancelled. He loves flowers and is a farmer. Remembering the awkwardness of members of that group when they first came onto the screen, all I can say is Wow! He has broadened in every way, presentation, use of vocabulary, language. He was so entertaining and came over absolutely brilliantly.  And not a bad word in sight.

Have I solved my dilemma. Not really, when visiting schools I used to say, 'it doesn't matter what you read, fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, comics, instructions, even the back of the cereal package, provided you can read. Now, I afraid I do add, 'provided you learn the occasional new word and the grammar and spelling are okay!'

Characters to Fall in Love With: Unforgettable Heroes of the Literary World

We all remember Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind – at least those of us over forty do. And who can forget Jamie Fraser of Outlander or Edward Cullen – not so much – of Twilight and The Darkling from that wonderful series by Leigh Bardugo, The Grisha?

As for girls – you’d have to go a long way to improve on Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games series – the Everdene (note the different spelling) of Thomas Hardy fame. Although I don’t think any us were over the moon about Bella, also from Twilight by Stephanie Meyer.

I confess to becoming very appreciative of Griet, the servant girl and the narrator in Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, unconsciously basing the character of Maidy from The Year the Swans Came on her.

It’s difficult to write a gentle character in novels – critics either love or hate them, as I learned to my cost. The character of the narrator, Magrit (Maidy), came in for both praise and criticism; the doubters disliking her steadfast and ‘non-pushy’ nature. In my defence, the main character was Ruth, a beautiful but selfish and self-centured young woman and it is her actions that precipitate the tragic happenings of that take place in this novel.

I know today, the fashion is for strong women who dominate the action and for some young people, anything else is not acceptable BUT ... the very fact that you dislike them speak volumes for the author’s ability to write. Not preaching here, but authors usually have a good reason for creating a character in a certain way and to make that way convincing means they have succeeded. When readers told me they grew actively to dislike Ruth, I was thrilled. Nevertheless, I always feel sympathy for her - if you read the novel you will discover where I am coming from.

I'm still stuck for a title for the sequel of The Year the Swans Came which will be Book 5 in the children of Zeus Seris but I can assure you Maidy and Ruth are in it – and then we will see. Which brings me neatly back to guys and to Zande:

I didn’t need to look round. For the past two nights Zande’s voice had echoed through my dreams; only now its dissonant base tones had been replaced by a light-hearted dance step.

‘It’s Magrit, isn’t it? How extraordinary! Great minds do think alike, after all.’

Obviously with years and years of both reading and writing behind me, books I have both read and written must influence the creation of my characters. However, I have never before created a character as powerful as Zande. Again, read the novel and decide for yourself if he is the hero? If not, is he the anti-hero? Or is Jaan the hero after all? Unfortunately, yu will have to wait for the next book to decide. Nevertheless, as Zande powers his way through The Year the Swans Came and with overweening vanity also demands I tell his story in the trilogy, Children of Zeus, that is what I have done, right from the age of four and the massacre of the village where he is living. 

There is one other character who I believe equally unforgettable: Yöst. He takes centre stage in The Click of the Pebble also in An Ocean of White Wings. Equally as stubborn as Zande, although in a very different way, he has eased his way into my heart and the hearts of those who are even now meeting up with him. 

This is what the Net Gallery reviewer says: 

Joscelyn S Reviewer on Net Gallery. This was a great coming of age fantasy story. I really enjoyed seeing these young characters struggle to survive in the aftermath of the massacre that leaves them only each other to depend on. Their journey drew me in and had me reading this entire book in one sitting, I'm looking forward to reading more books set in this fascinating world.

And of course, he again takes centre stage in An Ocean of White Wings - just out.

Only one review so far, but it is incredible

This is a story that touches the heart and stays in the mind long after finishing reading it. Although I finished it two days ago, I find myself still thinking about it and feeling again the emotions aroused by the author’s skill in writing. I found myself fully immersed in the lives of the characters, especially Yost. I understood well Tante Maria’s fears for him and her desire to protect him, even though she knew she couldn’t. Although a caritanae, Yost doesn’t ‘fit’. Unlike the other members of the flock, he loves his family and wants to do all he can to protect them, especially when he discovers that the German officer, ‘Kapitan Death’, is none other than the priest who led the slaughter of the caritanae left on the island when only Yost, Zande and Tata escaped.

I became so involved in the lives of Yost, Zande and Tata in the last book that it was like being back with old friends in this one

Read them both and then get in touch via my website and let me know your opinion of these characters and whether or not you agree with me. Also who is your favourite character? That is very important.

How to get in or become a Facebook friend: 

The Year the Swans Came: Buy My Book Here
The Click of a Pebble: Buy my book at Amazon 
An Ocean of White Wings:

Magical Realism or Fantasy - You Decide

The Series: Children of Zeus
‘Where Historical Fiction and Fantasy collide

After a decade or more writing for children and young adults, I pretty much know my way around a children’s book. A couple of years ago, deciding I need a new challenge, I turned my attention to writing magical realism for adults.
But what is magical realism and how does it differ from fantasy? I think of fantasy as being set in a mythological world in which there are rules but maybe not the rules we subscribe to in our humdrum human world. Magical realism takes place in our world and follows its rules, except occasionally those rules are skewed.
Which is so exciting.
I had already found a story, plotted it and written the introduction. And yes, I admit, I’m a plotter not a pantser, using tables and graphs, blurbs and a storyline.
The title was never in doubt: The Year the Swans Came (See my blog – why I wrote Swans) only the names of the characters. 

I had called my main character: Yöst. But when I completed the first draft, I realised the name was  wrong. It didn’t fit. The character stalking his way through the story and dominating its action wasn’t Yöst – it was far too gentle a name. And so Xander was born, except the spelling very soon mutated into Zande. 

I had never planned to write for adults, considering adult relationships far too complex, yet in my very first novel for this age group, I created Zande, who is divine but unbelievably complicated. I promise, I’m not the only one to have fallen in love with him. 

But why is he like this? What has happened to tear this character apart? You will need to read the novels to discover that but meanwhile this is the blurb from The Year the Swans Came

Growing up amongst the ruins of war, four siblings use the bridges and cobblestone walkways of the old city as a backdrop for their games. Pieter Bader, the eldest, wants to follow in the footsteps of his family, designers of mirrors for royalty since the 17th century, while Maidy, the youngest, dreams of becoming a writer. Around the smallest bridge in the city, she weaves stories of swashbuckling pirates and princesses, who wear sandals made from the silken thread of a spider web. Her best friend Ruth lives next door. She dreams of marrying Pieter, only for him to vanish from their lives late one night.

Is his disappearance linked to the arrival of the swans, feared as cursed and birds of ill-fortune? What will happen when they return six years later, on the morning of Maidy’s sixteenth birthday?

And who exactly is the charismatic and mysterious Zande?

Follow Ruth and Maidy’s cursed tale of love as they discover what happened to Pieter, and how the appearance of Zande will affect both their lives, unleashing events as tragic and fantastical as one of Maidy’s stories.

I first submitted this novel to agents in 2013. The agent Felicity Bryan. Loved the storyline and style of writing but she suggested I introduce the magical element earlier ... This created quite a problem. Not able to resolve it, I decided to write a prequel, which would explain all. On the way, I attended a lecture about ‘book titles’, when it was suggested that titles should come from the first page or pages of your novel – and so, The Click of a Pebble was born. 

And with it, yet another unforgettable character,Yöst, came into being. Plus a storyline so very different from anythng I have attempted before, I am still pinching myself that it came from my pen. It starts with a bang and ends with one too. 
Certainly in its hero, Yöst, I have unearthed a most memorable character, one who is likely to haunt dreams. And he is so very human, it is quite a conundrum to discover he isn't totally human. 

‘You must promise never to speak out about your heritage,’ his grandmother said, her old voice fearful and faint, ‘because people fear anything different.’
‘Fear us!’ Yöst laughed in protest. ‘We are too few to fear.’
‘It makes no difference. You are carinatae, descendants of Zeus, magical creatures …’

Naturally ... the writing of Click (as I call it) solved nothing. 100,000 words and three characters later, I had explained the magic but was no closer to ending Zande’s story than I had been at the beginning of the book. Instead, I had introduced a completely new story line with a raft of new characters, each one with a story to tell. This is the first review:

Joscelyn S Reviewer on Net Gallery. This was a great coming of age fantasy story. I really enjoyed seeing these young characters struggle to survive in the aftermath of the massacre that leaves them only each other to depend on. Their journey drew me in and had me reading this entire book in one sitting, I'm looking forward to reading more books set in this fascinating world.

And so I began Book 2, An Ocean of White Wings, hoping to settle the matter once and for all.
Has it?
It has taken a third book, The Drumming of Heels to bring the series to an official close and explain what happens to all three characters: Yöst, Zande and Tatania.
One last problem to solve.
The original book, The Year the Swans Came was set in Holland in 1951. I did try not to mention the country and only leave clues, using the terms Mevrouw and Meneer, but I got a slap on the wrist from reviewers, especially since I referred to the Germans in WW2 only as invaders and didn't name them. 

And so in Click of a Pebble I did place the story - the Bay of Biscay 1934, and the storyline carries us through as many countries as years, ending in 1948 again in the south-west of France.

I have now completed the third book of the trilogy, The Drumming of Heels, and this brings all their stories to a conclusion. Logically that must make the Year the Swans Came  Book 4, except I’m not sure if you can apply logic to magical realism. In any case, it was published first because of the secret in it.
        I felt the words ticking away inside my head like an unexploded bomb, ‘One that involves you all.’
        Zande got to his feet in one graceful move. ‘Oh, that secret.’
        ‘You don’t play fair, Zande,’ I burst out.
        ‘Why would I possibly change the habit of a lifetime and play fair?’ I watched his face; grim, his eyes hooded.
        ‘Because we’re friends.’
        ‘So be satisfied with that.’ 

(Excerpt: The Year the Swans Came)

Right – that’s it.
Tomorrow, I really ought to start writing the opening chapter of Book 5, the sequel to The Year the Swans Came.

PS:  What about Yöst? You will need to read the trilogy to see what I mean. I guarantee you will love him as much as I do. 

Persecuted throughout the centuries for their ability to shape-shift into swans and heavenly beings, three children, Yöst, Zande and a little girl, Tatania, are the sole survivors of the latest purge. Unaware of their real nature, Ramon, a gypsy farmer offers shelter on his farm in return for work. Striking up a close friendship with Rico, the only son in a house full of girls, it is Rico who helps Yöst through the first difficult year. As their relationship strengthens and deepens, Yöst begins to think of staying and making his life there as a farmer … forgetting that as carinatae, his date with destiny is approaching.

Barbara Spencer
Award Winning Author
Connect with me on:
Twitter: @BarbaraSpencerO
Blog spot:
The Year the Swans Came – Winner of  a Chill with a Book – Readers Award January 2019
Discovering Diamonds Review – March 2019