Friday, 12 October 2018

Jonathan Pinnock Talks About Archie And Pye

I'm very pleased to welcome Jonathan Pinnock to my blog today, to talk about how Sylvia Plath helped him out of the creative doldrums to write his new novel, The Truth About Archie and Pye. I've only read Jonathan's excellent flash fiction up to now, but I intend to put that right and get hold of a copy of Archie and Pye as soon as my To Read pile gets down to twenty books (the minimum level before FOROOB* sets in!)

The Truth About Archie and Pye 

"Something doesn't add up about Archie and Pye ...
After a disastrous day at work, disillusioned junior PR executive Tom Winscombe finds himself sharing a train carriage and a dodgy Merlot with George Burgess, biographer of the Vavasor twins, mathematicians Archimedes and Pythagoras, who both died in curious circumstances a decade ago.
Burgess himself will die tonight in an equally odd manner, leaving Tom with a locked case and a lot of unanswered questions.
Join Tom and a cast of disreputable and downright dangerous characters in this witty thriller set in a murky world of murder, mystery and complex equations, involving internet conspiracy theorists, hedge fund managers, the Belarusian mafia and a cat called µ."

How Sylvia Plath Helped Me Out of the Creative Doldrums

At the beginning of 2014 my writing career was going nowhere fast. I’d had a small amount of success with Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens in 2011 and Dot Dash in 2012 and Take It Cool was on the way to publication, but I had no idea what to do next. So I’d decided to take the Bath Spa Creative Writing MA to help me find some kind of path. I’d sort of assumed that the array of illustrious tutors on the course would be able to steer me in the direction most suited to my abilities.

Oddly enough, that’s what actually happened, but not quite in the way I’d anticipated.

When you start the Bath Spa CWMA, you’re expected to come along with an idea of the book that you’re going to develop on the course. The idea I had in mind was an ambitious one. I intended to write a creative non-fiction alternative history of St George, framed as my (almost certainly unsuccessful) attempt to get the BBC to produce my putative sitcom about St George in the modern world and my (equally unsuccessful) attempt to get Omid Djalili to play the starring role.

I still think this wasn’t an entirely bad idea – I had a very early draft of something like it performed at Liars’ League in July 2008, called The Patience of a Saint – but it soon became clear that it wasn’t going to wash with Bath.

However, the Narrative Non-Fiction Module that I’d signed up for in order to help with the St George concept didn’t turn out to be a complete waste of time. The selection of books to study on the module was, frankly, a bit grim, being to a large extent about death and terminal illness, but I was rather taken with Janet Malcolm’s enquiry into the life and death of Sylvia Plath, The Silent Woman. This is actually an enquiry into the nature of biography, and takes the form of a series of interviews with various people who knew Plath and Hughes, discussing her own feelings as she evaluates the different conflicting narratives.

What I loved about it was the range of eccentric literary folk that she encountered along the way, and I was thinking about these people on my drive home one day. I imagined what a wonderful novel you could construct about a literary mystery and I suddenly realised that this was what I wanted to write for my course submission.

The problem was that I knew nothing much about literature – certainly not to the extent that I could get away with writing a book about one. I did, however, know quite a lot about Maths. And then I remember Archie and Pye, a couple of eccentric dead mathematicians that I’d invented for another story, Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, that got read at Liars’ League (the month after The Patience of a Saint, in fact). By the time I’d got home, I knew exactly what I was going to write.

I submitted the first chapter of it to the next Professional Skills Workshop seminar and awaited the verdict of my tutor and peers with some trepidation. When my turn came, our tutor, the formidable Celia Brayfield, opened the critique session by asking everyone if they felt I should continue with this. One by one every hand went up, including hers. OK, I thought. We’re on.

So that was how I ended up writing an absurd mathematical murder mystery, with a little help from Sylvia Plath and a lot of help from my tutors at Bath – especially Celia Brayfield and also Maggie Gee. I’m quite proud of the result, although I’m not entirely sure what Sylvia Plath would have made of it.

Jonathan Pinnock’s THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE was published by Farrago Books on October 4th. A surprising number of people seem to be enjoying it.

You can buy your copy here 

*Fear of Running Out Of Books

Tuesday, 9 October 2018


It was a privilege to judge this year’s I Must Be Off! competition, and I’d like to congratulate everybody who made it onto the long and shortlists. Every one of the final nineteen writers deserved their place, and there wasn’t a single piece that could be cast aside with an immediate ’no’.
I’m currently reading Silverland by Dervla Murphy, one of my favourite travel writers. It’s a perfect mix of sparse, lyrical description of the Siberian landscape, Russian history, Murphy's own take on the world, and her interaction with the vast and disparate array of people she encounters on her journey. And those encounters, for me, are the most captivating parts of the book. I find myself reading faster, skipping some of the less interesting history, as I anticipate her next human story.
For a travel piece to work for me there has to be a human connection, or a meaningful interaction with nature. There are some beautiful descriptive pieces on the shortlist, yet a few are missing that interaction, or don’t have a strong story, and this is the reason they didn’t make the final five. There doesn’t need to be a tale of derring-do or fast action for a piece to be successful, however there does need to be a story of some kind.
A few didn’t reach the last five simply because one cliché too many or a weak final sentence can be the difference between getting there and not making it when it’s a close race. In a short piece of writing every word counts, so it’s worth thinking a little harder to find an original adjective. The sea should never be azure, markets should never be bustling, and buildings should never nestle.
I was in no doubt about my winner after the first read-through, however choosing the other four was difficult - so difficult that there are half a dozen pieces I’d like to mention in addition to the finalists!
I really enjoyed the elegantly written and enchanting story of The Dream Palace, and the Untitled letter, which is beautifully drawn yet feels a little more like memoir than travel writing. I felt the same about So Much New York!, which is a great piece of memoir writing, engaging, witty and entertaining. I love the phrase that sums it up - ‘tourists in each other’s lives.’  The writer of India Looks Like uses stream of consciousness to great effect in conveying the country’s relentless, overwhelming bombardment of the senses.
Two pieces that just missed the final five were Long in the Devil’s Tooth and Making a Whip out of Poo in Romania.
Long in the Devil’s Tooth is an entertaining whirlwind, a great story written in a captivating and charming style. It just feels a little cluttered as it stands - the final sentence, for example, feels superfluous - yet with another edit it could be honed to perfection.
Making a Whip out of Poo in Romania - what a fabulous title! This is another evocative piece, and I felt as though I was there in the snowy Carpathians, which is how it should be. The opening paragraph is strong, and the second half of the piece - the conversation on the train between the narrator and the wonderfully drawn Elena - is well-paced and works well. However, I feel the first half is a little clunky in places and needs a few tweaks.

The three commended pieces I’ve chosen are A Fighter in the Waste, Beyond the Reef, and A Peaceful Warzone.
I really enjoyed Beyond the Reef, with its vivid and colourful description of South Pacific ocean lifeHowever, I feel there’s an opportunity to elevate this piece further by making more use of the tension created by the appearance of the shark. As the saying goes, start with something interesting, not necessarily what happened first.
A Fighter in the Waste is the story of Marcos, a boy in a Nicaraguan orphanage, who has come from La Chureca, Central America’s largest garbage dump. The description of the dump is relentlessly grim, assaulting all the senses, yet even here there is a flicker of hope - there is still Latino pride, and the children have clean clothes. Another moving piece, filled with poignant detail.
A Peaceful Warzone achieves a satisfying balance between the human story, the description of war torn Aleppo, the frisson of tension, and the narrator’s own experience. That said, it felt a little as though I was being kept at arm’s length - although I appreciate that’s in keeping with the central theme of facade and outward appearances.
The piece I’ve chosen as runner-up, Not Your Mother’s Travel Porn, certainly didn’t keep me at arm’s length. It sweeps you up, deposits you in Africa, and then makes you question the differences and similarities between us that are perhaps not quite what we thought, and the way we see ourselves in contrast to how we are perceived by others. This piece made me think about why we travel, and question which part of what we see is a show and which part is real. What do we ever really know about other people’s lives?
Finally, the winner - a piece of writing that moved me to tears, and the story I’m still thinking about long after reading it. My Name is Mai holds nothing back, yet is sensitively written; a bleak, sometimes brutal piece about a street child in Bangkok named Mai who will never be forgotten.
The writing isn’t word perfect, and there is the odd typo here and there, but this piece is so evocative and moving that those minor errors are inconsequential. The description of Mai at the beginning of the piece, with her dulled diamond ear studs, is poignantly contrasted with the glittering studs worn by the wealthy Thai student in the closing paragraph.
The last sentence, with its double meaning, is perfect, haunting, and will strike a cord with many fellow travellers. The memory of those daily encounters with Mai still resonates down the years for the narrator, and this heartbreaking story will stay inside my head for a long time to come.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

The Word for Freedom - Retreat West Books

The Word for Freedom contains twenty-four stories written to commemorate the centenary year of women’s suffrage. A few of the stories remember the fight of the suffragettes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but most of them chart the ongoing fight for freedom that women still face in all corners of the world today. We’ve come a long way, yet there is still so much inequality, and so many more hurdles, that sometimes it doesn’t appear as if we have moved very far at all.

Most women are fighting small inequalities every single day, at work, at home, in every aspect of their everyday lives. There are many things over which we have no control, and in the most extreme cases these are things which can endanger our safety, or even our lives. Every women has the right to walk down the street or through their own front door without fear, and The Word for Freedom is being sold in aid of Hestia and the UK Says No More campaign against domestic abuse and sexual violence.

The stories in The Word for Freedom explore the injustices and harsh reality of many women’s lives, yet there is often bravery, always strength, and an overwhelming sense of hope even in the darkest places. There are tales of abuse of power, of assumptions of male superiority, of modern slavery, and of a woman exercising her vote for the first time.

The anthology includes some great stories told from the teenage perspective, including ‘To the Sea’ by Helen Irene Young, and ‘Relevant’ by Anna Orridge, where a schoolgirl friendship makes the suffragette protests relevant to the modern day.

‘Cover Their Bright Faces’ by Abigail Rowe is the wonderful story of a maiden aunt who represses her forbidden passion for her Girton College soulmate - “Lucy, my light and my salvation”, and highlights the difference between Aunt Portia’s life and the modern day world of her niece, Matty, enjoying a loving and open relationship with her partner, Linda.

I loved Angela Readman’s gorgeous, lyrical, ‘Tiny Valentines’, and Julie Bull’s story, ‘Those Who Trespass Against Us’, showing how both father and husband in turn abuse and stifle the life of Lucy, the protagonist, who is quietly waiting to take back control. ‘Out of Office’ by Emily Kerr is a short and clever story that highlights the continuing problem of pay inequality, and Angela Clarke’s story, ‘Gristle’, is a wonderful tale of revenge.

One of my favourites in the collection is the exquisite ‘The Second Brain’ by Cath Bore. This is a story that most women will relate to - the difficulty of saying ‘I feel uncomfortable’. The excruciating fear that prevents us speaking up about an unwelcome touch, an inappropriate comment, a kiss, or sexual advance. At school, Mrs Parkinson, the biology teacher, tells the class that “butterflies are an indication of the brain in the stomach talking to the brain in your head.” But we’re not talking about the nice kind of butterflies - the ones we get when we look forward to something - we’re talking about the sort with wings that flap angrily, the butterflies that hurt.

The voice is pitch-perfect, exploring and charting the pain of a child not daring to challenge an adult male, and the ongoing struggle of the protagonist as she reaches adulthood, unable to talk down the strangers making her feel uncomfortable with their ‘banter’ or to reject the sexual advances of her boss.

The anthology launches 1st November, published by Retreat West Books, and in aid of a great charity!

You can pre-order The Word for Freedom here

Exceedingly pleased indeed to be on the shortlist for the Colm Toibin International Short Story Award!

Friday, 28 September 2018


My poem, Northern Light, has been added to the Poem of the North today.

I'm very proud to be part of this celebration to mark fifty years of the Northern Poetry Library.

You can read the growing poem here

"To celebrate 50 years of the Northern Poetry Library, we welcome you to a living, growing, collaborative artwork-in-progress. The Poem of the North brings together the work of the fifty selected poets, in five cantos, published over a period of six months. By the end of 2018, the completed poem will stand as a celebratory artefact: a tribute to the region and acknowledgement of the North’s rich seam of writers and written culture. Find out more about the Library and this artwork."

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Excited to have been asked to do a Northern Writers Reading event in Marsden Library on Wednesday 28th November at 7.30pm, along with fellow writer, Dave Rigby. Full details on the Friends of Marsden Library website: here

Wednesday 28th November7.00 for 7.30 – 8.30Dave Rigby and Amanda Huggins
Join us for a double bill of fiction with Dave Rigby and Amanda Huggins.  Readings, Audience Q&A, Sales and Signings.

Dave is returning with his latest Harry Vos, and we welcome Amanda Huggins to Marsden for the first time.

Book cover of Red Line, by Dave Rigby
Dave is a local writer living in the Colne Valley.  Redline is the third book he has self-published and the second featuring Belgian private eye Harry Vos.

Harry reads in his newspaper about a body found on an isolated riverbank not far from Charleroi. The man has no ID and is nicknamed Charlie by the press because of where he was found. Harry is intrigued by the case and gets involved unofficially in the investigation, which puts him increasingly under threat from a powerful company.

Cover of Separated from the Sea by Amanda Huggins
Amanda Huggins is the author of the flash fiction collection, Brightly Coloured Horses (Chapeltown Books), and the short story collection, Separated From the Sea (Retreat West Books).
Her work has been published in numerous anthologies, travel guides and literary journals, as well as in newspapers and magazines such as the Guardian, Telegraph, Wanderlust, Reader’s Digest, Writers’ Forum and Mslexia. Her travel writing has won several prizes, including the BGTW New Travel Writer of the Year Award, and her short stories and poetry are regularly placed and listed in competitions.
She appeared on BBC radio as part of Your Desert Island Discs, celebrating listeners’ music choices and stories, and her written piece to accompany the programme appears on the BBC website.
Amanda is originally from Scarborough. She moved to London in the 1990s, but the pull of the north was too strong, and she now lives in West Yorkshire.
Books will be available to buy on the night, or you can buy them in advance online, or why not visit our nearest independent book shop, The Book Corner, Piece Hall Halifax.   You can order by email to collect at your convenience.

The Book Corner, tel 01422 414443, email
Red Line
ISBN: 9781789013436
Separated from the Sea
ISBN: 9781999747268
Brightly Coloured Horses
Ebook link

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

The Literary Sofa - Writers on Location

Very excited to be on Isabel Costello's Literary Sofa today, talking about my love of Japan and how the country has influenced my writing.

"Whenever I return to Japan it feels like an emotional homecoming, and I’m both relieved and excited to be back. Yet I’ve always struggled to explain or define this strong connection, or to pin down exactly why I love the country so much. Perhaps the words remain elusive because the reasons are more spiritual than tangible.
I learnt my first word of Japanese when I was a child. The word – which I couldn’t pronounce correctly – was yurushite, meaning ‘I beg your forgiveness’, and it appeared on the box lid of my Sorry! game – a souped-up form of Ludo. The board itself was decorated with elegant Japanese gardens: cherry blossom, stone lanterns, autumn maple trees, waterfalls and distant mountains. The beautiful board, and the evocative description of Japan as ‘the land of politeness’, were enough to instill a faint yearning that I didn’t understand, a yearning that was cemented by the amateur production of The Mikado that my mother took me to see. The white makeup and scarlet lips, the intricate hair decorations, the beautiful colours and patterns of the kimonos, all seemed magical.
fullsizeoutput_5dYet my inaugural arrival in Tokyo – way too many years later – was confusing and disorienting, and the first couple of days were all about jet-lag, sleepless nights, and fighting to master a complicated Japanese toilet that left me in tears of frustration by refusing to flush. However, as soon as I reached the traditional ryokan in the mountains, Japan became light and shadow, blossom and leaf, the sound of a shojiscreen sliding shut, of tea pouring and of temple bells, the scent of tatami matting and cedar, the exhilarating joy of climbing above the clouds. I was able to fill notebook after notebook with observations, sketches, and story ideas. And when I moved on to discover the cities and towns, I discovered that neon lights could be as beguiling as the glow of lanterns along cobbled streets, and that Tokyo, post jet-lag, was fascinating and seductive."

You can read the full post here

Monday, 10 September 2018

Poems For The NHS At 70

Thrilled to announce that my poem, The Weight of Everything, will appear in this fabulous collection celebrating 70 years of the NHS. It will be out in November, and sold in aid of an NHS charity.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Review on SmokeLong Quarterly!

The most fabulous review of Brightly Coloured Horses on SmokeLong Quarterly by C A Shaefer, which you can read here

It's made my week and it's only Tuesday!

Friday, 31 August 2018

The 'I Must Be Off' Travel Writing Comp Results!

I was honoured to be asked to judge the I Must Be Off Competition this year. The results have now been announced - see Chris Allen's post below - and I'll be sharing my Judge's Report with you as soon as it's published on the website. (You can read the shortlist here.)

The 2018 I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition -- The Results!

Again this year the I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition has been a storm of stories from around the world. From the mountains of India to the depths of the oceans, from Mongolia to Maine, you've taken us there--and for this we're grateful. We love being part of your adventures.

This year's judge has been Amanda (Mandy) Huggins, who currently has not one but two short fiction collections out: Brightly Coloured Horses (Chapleton Books) and Separated from the Sea (Retreat West Books). The writers of the three highly commended entries below will receive a copy of Separated from the Sea. Huggins, also an award-winning travel writer, will share her thoughts on the pieces and the competition in her judge's report, which will be published here in September.

Congratulations again to everyone who made the long list and the shortlist. We hope you'll participate in next year's competition.

The Winners of the 2018 I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition:

First Place

"My Name is Mai" by J L Hall (Scotland)

Second Place

"Not Your Mother's Travel Porn" by Douglas Weissman (USA)

Highly Commended

"A Fighter in the Waste" by Nolan Janssens (Chile, Belgium, Canada)

"Beyond the Reef" by Brittany Rohm (USA)

"A Peaceful Warzone" by Hannah Elkak (UK, Saudi Arabia)

These five entries will appear at I Must Be Off! in September and October. There is still a Readers' Choice Award to be given, so please comment on and share your favorite pieces.

I must be off,

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Review of Separated From the Sea on

Separated from the Sea is a collection of short stories set in various locations across the world, including the UK, Europe, Cuba, the USA and Japan. Although some of the stories are geographically by the sea, other kinds of separation are recurring themes: separation from a loved one, from a sense of self, from the past and from reality.

Huggins’ ability to suggest as much in the unstated as in the stated is skilful and subtle as she takes us inside the lives of her characters. Her facility with language and narrative allows us, as readers, to experience the full gamut of emotion in each story.

In Already Formed, a woman grieves for the child she lost years ago and imagines him in a little boy she sees at the beach: “He was the colours of the dunes, the sand, the wild flowers, and the wind-blown couch grass. He was the colours of the sea: the water and the white spume beneath the unbroken blue of the sky.”

In To be the Beach a woman is on holiday with her abusive husband: “Lydia wanted to be the beach. Every day the sand had her wrinkles smoothed by the sea, her slate wiped clean, her rubbish swept away. She presented herself anew each morning as though nothing had ever happened there before. As though no dog had ever raced headlong after a ball, leaving untidy paw prints in a skittering arc. As though lovers had never walked hand in hand at the water’s edge, and stooped to pick up shells.”

Michael Secker’s Last Day encapsulates the life of an elderly couple. Michael, who is near retirement, wants a telescope to “discover comets and meteors, stars and planets, the whirl and glitter of the galaxies opening up possibilities to him from the attic window”. His wife, Joy, who has been obsessively tidy and controlling since her miscarriage many years ago and subsequent childlessness, wants him to take an interest in gardening instead. When he dies in an accident she buys a telescope and finally discovers for herself “what Michael had searched for in the limitless sky.”

A common misconception about short stories is that they are ideal for those who want to read something quickly because they have limited time or attention spans. Amanda Huggins’ accomplished collection exemplifies why careful attention should be paid to each story. Each should be read slowly and savoured for its beautiful lyrical language, complex characterisation and wide range of voices. If they are read in this way, each story, no matter how short, will resonate long after the book is finished.

Dr Sandra Arnold
                                         Copyright M Huggins

Jonathan Pinnock Talks About Archie And Pye

I'm very pleased to welcome Jonathan Pinnock to my blog today, to talk about how Sylvia Plath helped him out of the creative doldrums...