Monthly Archives: July 2014

This is The End*

Firstly, apologies for neglecting this blog yesterday. I know some of you were probably expecting a new short story, as I’ve been rather in the habit of promising a new tidbit of flash fiction every Wednesday for the past while, but I hope you’ll find it in your hearts to forgive me.

Photo Credit: butupa via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: butupa via Compfight cc

I wanted to blog yesterday. Honestly. I sat with prompt images for almost an hour, thinking. I almost had an idea, and then realised it was nonsense. My brain kept skidding towards my WiP like water draining down a plughole, you see, and I simply wasn’t able to drag my attention away long enough to focus on anything else.

So, eventually, I gave in. I dived into my book, and I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. I wrote for seven and a half hours, straight.

And I finished draft 1.

Now, it’s not perfect. Already, I’m thinking of things I need to fix. I want to rewrite most of the last chapter, for instance, and I can’t help but allow myself to get started into that today. It’s like an itch; unless I scratch it, I won’t have any peace. If I give it a go, I’ll be able to take my mind off it for long enough to start enjoying life again for a while. (That’s the theory, at least). It’s such a strange feeling, writing a chapter which you know you’ll have to re-do at the first available opportunity, but writing it anyway, half in a fever, because you simply must get to The End. The magic words which allow you to sit, staring at your blinking cursor and your word count, and realise that you’ve done it.

You’ve written a book.

No matter that it might never leave your computer hard drive. No matter that nobody else but you may ever read it. No matter that it might be rubbish, or that it needs extensive editing, or that it’s at least ten thousand words too long, or that the final chapter is a load of old horsefeathers. None of that matters when you’re looking at The End. Getting a story to that point is a cause for celebration; it’s an achievement, and should be recognised as such.

This is the fourth time I’ve managed to get to this point in a book (well, fifth, if you count the ‘first’ version of Tider, which I don’t tend to do); only one of these ends, so far, has rounded out a book which is good ‘enough’, or in other words good enough to get me an agent, and good enough to get my hopes up that it might actually make it to bookstore shelves one day. The others have been endings which are also beginnings – they’re ideas which have potential, but which haven’t been fully realised. They’re endings which need to be revisited, and now that I’ve managed to bring another idea to The End, I can think about going back and perfecting the others. Ideally, I’d love to be looking at four endings which I am happy with, which I feel close out a story world which is fully realised and expressed as well as I can express it, and looking forward to bringing more stories, loads more stories, to successful and satisfying conclusions. Maybe as I progress in this ol’ writing career of mine, I’ll get better at writing The End – I’ll start writing it in the calm realisation that I’ve just completed a good story, one which has a proper conclusion that isn’t a mere placeholder – but even if I keep having to muddle through, at least getting to The End is a good start.

Now. The End is in my metaphorical rearview mirror, and I’m off to see what happens next…


*Apologies for the over-drama. I couldn’t help myself.



Ghosts and Gods in the Machine

My brain is all a-scatter today.

Photo Credit: Neal. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Neal. via Compfight cc

Focus has been a real issue for me lately. This could be due to tiredness, or anxiety over whether my current book is any good, or stress over the fact that I’ll be receiving edits on ‘Emmeline’ from my agent during the month of August (which will be painful), or it could be due to none of those things, or all of them. All I know is, I sat down yesterday with the intention of finishing my WiP, and it didn’t happen. I struggled to write half a chapter and eventually – my forehead burning and my brain in a knot and my mind and body shattered with exhaustion – I had to give up in the hope that I’d do a better job the next time I tried.

Well, today is upon me now. The ‘next time’ is about to begin. And I feel about as capable of completing the work today as I did yesterday.

I think that finishing a book is difficult, in and of itself, but what makes it more difficult is the fact that, by the time you’re writing your last few chapters, you have to keep a lot of stuff in your head. You’re trying to keep your characters consistent and pick up on the little ‘hints’ you dropped all the way through your story and remember the imagery you’ve already used so you don’t use it again (on this point, I read a book recently which used the exact same metaphor for something twice within a hundred pages, and I found it unspeakably annoying) and you’re trying to bring your plot to a satisfactorily interesting, unique and surprising climax. Is it any wonder that my brain is baulking at the prospect? What adds to my difficulty in this case is the fact that I’m writing a ghost story, which in some ways is cool and in others is ridiculous, because I’ve never written about a ghost before and I haven’t read very many stories about them. Also, I can’t watch films which feature ghosts or spirits for fear of losing what remains of my sanity. So, it’s safe to say I don’t know the genre in any great depth. It was somewhat of a disaster, then, when this story suggested itself to me and having a ghost in it was absolutely vital to its existence.

Booo!! Photo Credit: Shain Erin via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Shain Erin via Compfight cc

One thing writing this book has taught me, though, is the importance of rules when you’re creating a ‘world’ – and every story creates a world, whether you set it smack-bang in the middle of your own home town or on a far distant moon in the twenty-fifth century. Writing fantasy stories, of course, can involve more rules – the more elaborate and imaginative the world, the more rules you’ll have and the more important it will be not to break them – but even in a contemporary story (which my WiP is, to a large extent), you cannot break the rules once you’ve introduced them. Not if you don’t want your reader to rip your book in half, at least. Contemporary-set stories have to obey the rules of our world – people have bills and mortgages and jobs, and gravity works the way we expect, and people get sick, and accidents happen, and characters need to eat and sleep and go to the loo, and distances have to be crossed without recourse to teleportation or something which would make it any less difficult, and there’s time (which can be a major pain). Then, if the story has other elements – supernatural or magical, say – they have their own rules, which may interfere with the real world all they like, so long as they do it in a systematic, consistent and believable way. The upshot is you make the rules, whether in whole or in part; you’ve just got to remember what they are, and keep to them.

So. In relation to my story: I have a ghost in it. She has certain abilities, which revolve around water. She has a particular ‘realm’ in which she is almost all-powerful, and then there’s the ‘real’ world in which her abilities are limited (though she’s still scary). It’s very important for me to remember these limitations when it comes to writing the conclusion to the story. I’ve been relying on them all the way through the book, and so the worst possible thing at this stage of the tale would be to reverse that, or develop an ‘exception’, or something which is a blatant breach of the construction I’ve worked so hard on up to this point. Pulling the rug out from under your readers – if you’re a master of your craft – works well if you’ve foreshadowed it correctly through the book with just the right balance between blatant ‘Look! Look what is happening over here! My goodness but it is a Hint!’ and subtlety you’d need an electron microscope to spot; anything else just looks like the writer threw their hands up in despair and decided to go for broke. I’m not a fan of ‘deus ex machina‘ (‘God in the Machine’) type plot twists, unless they’re done with huge skill and intelligence – and if they bring something exceptional to a story, which often they don’t. In order to break my own narrative rules, I’d have to rewrite the whole book, which is something I’d really rather not do. There should be no need for drastic action like this if you’ve thought about your plot and characters and you know where you’re going with them.

Which, of course, I’ve done.

In any case, after I shut the computer off yesterday and went to do other stuff in a fit of temper, ideas as to how to bring the book to a conclusion began to trickle into my overheated brain. Some of them were useful, and most weren’t, but it proved once again that giving yourself a break once in a while can be the most useful thing you can do for your writing. Let’s hope that today’s effort flows more smoothly, and that the rules remain unbroken.

If not, I’ll write something like ‘And then a giant donkey fell out of the sky, braying as it came, and it crushed everyone flat until they were all dead and then they flew up into the sky holding hands and singing tralala and everyone was happy. The End.’

(Whatever I come up with, it can’t be worse than that – right?)


Use Your Words. Please.

It feels almost frivolous to write blog posts about my rarefied life in a world where people are being bombed out of existence and passenger jets are being shot out of the sky and genocides are quietly, systematically going on in various corners of the world and a virulent disease of horrific proportions is cutting a swathe through the people of West Africa. In fact, it doesn’t just feel frivolous: it sort of is.

But, as I so often have to ask myself, what else can I do?

Words, whether written or spoken, are among the most powerful weapons at our disposal. We can use them to rabble-rouse or to comfort; to propagandise or to tell the truth. We can use them calmly, or we can use them in the heat of anger. Sometimes, the same words can mean entirely different things, if said in two different tones of voice. Sometimes, too, writing words down can strip them of nuance and lead to misunderstanding. Two different people can have two entirely different, even contradictory, interpretations of the same written or spoken text, which means that words, our greatest treasure, can also be our biggest liability. Information is as vital a tool in our world as medicine or infrastructure or politics – nations and peoples can rise and fall depending on what words are in their holy books or on the lips of their leaders, and on how the people who hear or read these words understand what they are being told.

So, then, as a person who lives and breathes for words, perhaps I am not as helpless as I feel.

Of course, my sphere is very small, but I can choose what words to fill it with. The words I use go on to have a life without and beyond me, which means I must choose them carefully. My words are my only means of explaining myself to the world, and they will be my only legacy. I can hope that they will be understood as I intended them to be, but I know I have no control over that – once a word has left your pen, or your mouth, or your keyboard, and reached the eyes or ears of another, it is no longer yours. You are responsible for it, but it no longer belongs to you.

Photo Credit: Saint Huck via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Saint Huck via Compfight cc

I wish that world leaders could think about words this way. I wish those calling for war could consider that, in their need to ‘win’, they are throwing their own people on a pyre, and I wish they could be made to care that they are destroying lives and blighting the future. What good is it to stand triumphant over a smoking, blasted landscape? I wish those responsible for leading the world’s faithful could be more considered in the words they use, and the labels they choose to apply to others, and the interpretations they make of holy texts and scriptures. I wish people – those people with the loudest voices, and the largest platforms, and the greatest amount of words at their disposal – would use them more carefully, respecting their power, and being mindful of the consequences. Skewing the thinking of a people is not simply a game, or a way to win influence – it is dangerous, and something which can easily flare out of control, and it is wrong. It is also the easiest thing in the world to do, if one has the words and there are ears willing to hear.

I wish people would value doing right over being right. I wish they’d sacrifice the pleasure of shouting the loudest or the longest, or having the final word in an argument, or feeling like the one whose words are law, for the good of those who cannot speak.

This is why I am passionate about education and literacy. I believe people should be given the tools to distinguish between what they are being told, and the truth. I believe nobody should be forced to become reliant upon one source for the information they need to live their lives in peace. I believe people should be given the tools to make up their own minds, to come to balanced conclusions, to enter into rational discussion, and to understand that even though different peoples may speak different languages, the words are all the same.

All anyone wants is to live in peace, in relative prosperity, and to feel that they are safe. All anyone wants is to send their children out to play in the morning without fearing that they will never come home. All anyone wants is to have the dignity of a livelihood that is unthreatened by shells or tanks or rocket fire, or illness or militias or crushing rule. We have created a world where those who do not believe the same words that we do are ‘wrong’, whether those words relate to a god, or a political system, or an economic structure, or a history that may not have happened exactly as we have always been told. We have taken the greatest tool we have for bringing us together and turned it into the most efficient way of keeping us apart; if we’d had a blueprint for making everything wrong, we couldn’t have done a better job of it.

Words are powerful. My words, and yours. It is never too late to start using them.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Witch Child’



I seem to be having a ‘colonial New England’ sort of summer. First, I read (and enjoyed) Ghost Hawk, and then I noticed Witch Child sitting on a stall at a booksale, unloved, and I decided to bring it home. It’s not a new book – my edition bears the proud publication date of 2000 on its fly page – but it was well worth the purchase price.

This book tells the story of Mary Newbury, a mid-seventeenth century girl of about sixteen. It is framed within a clever narrative structure – the book purports to be an academic study, with a prologue and epilogue written in the voice of a woman who is doing research into Mary’s life, and I really enjoyed that aspect of it. The entire novel (excepting this prologue and epilogue) takes the form of a diary, written by Mary, which has survived almost four centuries, and its first-hand, primary-source feeling pervades the story. From the outset, Mary tells us she is a witch, or that she is believed to be – which amounts to much the same thing. She lives with her grandmother, who is accused of witchcraft and executed at the novel’s opening; after this, she is taken in by a benefactor who arranges, hastily, for her to be sent to America on board an emigrant ship as part of a group of Puritans escaping religious persecution. She goes, both because she knows she has no choice, and because there is nothing for her to go home to. Her sense of loss is palpable, and her memories of her grandmother are poignant, catching her by surprise at points through her tale, just like grief is wont to do.

On board the ship she meets and becomes close to a middle-aged woman named Martha, who becomes a sister-mother figure to her, as well as an apothecary and his son whose fates become linked with hers. Others among the Puritans are not so friendly, but Mary tries to keep to herself, hiding her diary from prying eyes despite the fact that her literacy, and her ‘fair hand’, draw a lot of unwelcome attention. She is aware of the tinderbox nature of the living arrangements – not only are the passengers living on top of one another, but she understands that the merest sniff of any connection to witchcraft will spell her doom, and everyone seems to be hyper-aware of it; Mary therefore lives in fear of being ‘found out.’ She also becomes close to one of the young sailors on board, which is met with disapproval and questioning by some of her fellow emigrants, and this theme – that of the strictures of Mary’s life restricting her carefree nature – recurs throughout the novel. When the emigrants eventually arrive in New England, they do not find the rapturous welcome they expected, and they face into their first winter with no crops, no homes and the knowledge that they must make a long journey inland, during which they will be dependent on their Native guides for survival.

I really enjoyed so much about this book, including Mary as a character, of course, as well as Martha, and the realities of their lives in England, on board the ship and also in the New World. Celia Rees’ writing is rich and detailed, and Mary’s voice is wonderful. I felt the pain of her loss, the fear of her voyage and the bittersweet nature of her feelings for Jack, the young sailor, and when her ability to write brings her into the circle of the creepy Reverend, I felt my flesh crawl at the fate I felt sure was laid out for her. I also loved the secondary characters of the apothecary and his son, and how their plots intertwined with Mary’s. There is also a fascinating interplay between the young women of the colony, inspired by the real-life Salem witch trials of course, but which is also so much a part of any group of young women forced to live together in a highly pressured, unnatural environment where their only means of advancement lies in finding a husband. I thought this aspect of the novel was handled very well, and at several points I read with my breath held.

Where the book wasn’t as strong, for me, was in its depiction of its Native American characters. They are portrayed quite stereotypically, albeit extremely positively, but I felt the story skimmed over them as people rather simplistically, seeing them solely in terms of their ethnicity. As with Ghost Hawk, the horrors of the interactions between the settlers and the Native population, as well as the terrible treatment meted out by the Puritans on one another, is a strong (and strongly handled) theme here, one which I found wrenching and engaging to read. I loved the issues surrounding women and their agency, literacy, and power which the book raises, and I thought the means by which Mary’s journal is saved (through being stuffed inside a quilt) was fascinating due to the history of quilt-making as a ‘feminine art.’

I am interested in the history of witchcraft and witch-trials anyway, and this book definitely fed into those interests, but it’s also an excellent story, well told, which should appeal to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. It’s not a ‘typical’ YA novel, so don’t let that put you off! If this book is new to you, I’d say give it a go – and don’t forget to let me know what you think.

Fictionful Friday

'Miranda - the Tempest', John William Waterhouse, 1916. Public Domain Image.  Sourced:

‘Miranda – the Tempest’, John William Waterhouse, 1916. Public Domain Image.


Nothing frivolous, you said. Nothing over-complicated, or stimulating – Logic forbid, the thought of a daughter with ideas! – and nothing besides Newton’s own English. Nothing humorous.
With one exception.

Shakespeare was your most axiomatic of proofs, your only belief. My bio-screen scrolled his words twelve hours out of twenty-four; he was my cloven pine, and you my Sycorax.

I read nothing else, but it turned out to be enough, in the end.

Of course I attended the ceremony. Not to be present for my father’s return? Unthinkable. The flagship was magnificent as it came in to dock. The first flash, and then the soundwave, struck the crowd dumb, but the screaming started as the fireball grew and as it became clear that all were lost.

I wept, because I had to.

The engineer I had smiled into sabotage soon met a poisoned end. I rather think you should have been proud, father. You, in your way, gave me the universe entire.


Phew. This was a tough ‘un. A story of between 150 and 160 words, based around the picture prompt and including the concept of ‘freedom’? No easy task. As always, however, it was a great brain-stretcher and an excellent writing warmup. Yesterday, I managed to get my WiP to 68,800 words (ish), and I’m about to start writing chapter twenty-nine. I always had thirty chapters in mind as a good length for this story, so that means I’m almost at the finish line. The hardest part, for me, is yet to come – but wish me luck. Perhaps, as this week ends, so will draft 1 of this book. Wouldn’t that be something to celebrate?

Have wonderful weekends, all. Remember to cherish your freedom, and how lucky you are to have it.

That Familiar Feeling…

I’ve hit 65,000 words on the WiP, which is A Good Thing.



This is particularly good when I consider that, at about 50,000 words, I thought I’d written myself into an irretrievable mess and getting to the lofty wordcount I’m currently at seemed no more than a fever dream. So, I’m pleased.

Or, at least, I was pleased. Until I remembered that I really suck at writing endings.

You’d think I’d have improved by now, frankly. I’m on my fourth book, I’ve written loads of stories (some of which have even been published, so they can’t have been that bad), and I’ve bashed out about a million blog posts. I should know how to end things properly, but it still gives me the sweats. The strangest thing of all is, with this book, I know how I want it to end – I’m just not sure how to make it brilliant enough.

(By which I mean, of course, exciting and thrilling and spooky and scary and cool, all of which are vital when you’re writing a book about outsmarting a horrible and terrible ghoul-thingie bent on revenge, which is what I’m doing).

I keep trying to remind myself that I’m completing a first draft, and that all I need is a bare skeleton of story which can be given proper flesh and musculature later; getting it finished is the important thing. But I’m one of those complicated people for whom completing a job with anything less than perfection in mind is pretty much impossible. I’ve been editing as I wrote; half the book is technically a second draft, because I printed it out to bring it with me on a road trip, red pen in hand, when I was at that point in the writing process. I also don’t do what so many other writers do when they’re drafting, which is leave whole sections unwritten with a few notes to direct them when they revisit the draft, along the lines of ‘something needs to happen here’ – I leave no gap unbridged when I’m trying to bring a story to completion. I prefer to sweat over it now, rather than sweat over it later. So, I want to do a good job of the latter parts of this book, even if their true importance, for now, lies in their being the bit that comes before I get to type ‘The End.’

I read once, a long time ago, that in order to keep your writing fresh (and your mind fully engaged in your story) you should leave your character ‘stuck’ every day when you finish work – as in, hanging off the edge of a cliff with no visible means of rescue, or facing a firing squad without hope of survival. Then, the next morning when you dive back in, the stakes are high and the narrative blood is pumping before you so much as add your first word of the day, and you don’t leave yourself room for flabby storytelling or complacency. I think there’s something to be said for that approach. I’ve left my protagonist stuck at several points in the drafting of this story and I think it has helped me to get ‘unstuck’, and to keep her moving. There is, of course, always the risk that you leave things too stuck, and you have to unpick the stickiness and find another path – but I’ve done that at least three times with this book, too. It’s not unsurvivable, the whole ‘oo-er. I’ve made a bit of a mess of this’ thing. I know things don’t have to be set in stone the first time you write them at this stage of the game, and the beauty of drafting is that you get to change stuff that doesn’t work – it’s just hard to remember that when you’re in the thick of it.

Anyway, I’m fairly sure I can wrap this story up, though I have just written an unlikely scene wherein our heroine uses a life-jacket to escape from a perilous situation (and not in the way one would expect). I thought it was terribly clever at the time and now it seems a bit…



…so we’ll see whether it makes the final cut.

Another problem with writing first drafts which are over-concerned with being ‘right’ is, of course, that you risk struggling to edit and re-draft them. It’s harder to chuck away thousands of words you’ve really sweated over than it is paragraphs which go a bit like: ‘blah blah blah, protagonist eats dinner and has a fight with mum, do something here with an exploding bathtub or similar’; the more strongly-built the foundation, the harder it is to dig up. It’s not even a pride thing, or a ‘precious writer’ thing – it’s literally just harder to see another way forward when you’ve put down your first version of the story too strongly, like leaning too heavily with a pencil and leaving a track in the paper when you erase what you’ve drawn. I’m wondering now whether I should just write something like ‘ffffffffffffffffflllllllllllllppppp, stuff happens here for ten pages, you know what I’m talking about’ instead of a conclusion, and hope for the best when draft two kicks off.

But between you and me, it ain’t gonna go down like that. I know it, you know it, everybody knows it. So, I might as well just go with my natural style – panic, stress, perfectionism and eventual exhaustion. It’s worked out okay for me in the past, right?

Have a most excellent Thursday. I’m planning to be hot and bothered, but it’s all good. After all, it’s only drafting.


Wednesday Writing – ‘Swarm’




I watch you from the door. You’re working, in your own world as usual. Your head is your hive and your thoughts buzz about inside it, creating the honeyed memories of a life you may never live. As you bend and twist, plant and weed, ignoring me while appearing not to, I feel our baby move against my bladder. I want to wrench it loose, tell it to sit still, punish it with words and fists, and it is an effort not to scream.

All of this was your idea. The move. The animals. The beehives at the end of our long garden, and the henhouse by the kitchen door. We grew the land as we grew the house, and then you made me grow a child to tie me here.

At night, I trail down to the beehives through the long grass, my bulging belly hard and hot and heavy, and I whisper to the creatures inside. I tell them to swarm, to pick up their gold and leave, to darken the sky with the humming of their wings. I tell them not to look back. Sometimes I imagine them rippling over my skin like water, dusting me pollen-yellow, grappling with my bulk until they’ve lifted me into the air and borne me away like dust on the wind.

The bees might be the only thing here that can fly, but I know how many stings it takes to kill.


Masterpieces of Children’s Literature

Earlier this week, a reader used the words ‘masterpieces of children’s literature’ in a search engine, and as a result they came upon my blog. I’m not sure whether they went away disappointed, or if they found what they were looking for, because I’ve never really written about the broad scope of children’s literature here; it is my primary passion in life, and yet I’ve never actually gone into it in any detail.

In honour of that blog searcher, then, I’d like to write a little about children’s literature, its history and development, and some of the masterpieces of the genre.

I promise it won’t be boring. There’ll be blood and gore and highly inappropriate content, and everything. Sort of.

Is it just me, or is this really creepy? *shudder* Photo Credit: Stewart Leiwakabessy via Compfight cc</a

Is it just me, or is this really creepy? *shudder*
Photo Credit: Stewart Leiwakabessy via Compfight cc

So, it’s probably not news to anyone that the idea of ‘children’s literature’ didn’t really exist until the mid to late eighteenth century; before that, texts were written for children, of course, but they were without exception things like ‘horn books’, or primers to help them learn to read, primarily composed of Scripture excerpts and lessons. Early literature didn’t really distinguish between ‘adult’ readers and ‘child’ readers in the sense that nobody wondered whether kids would like to read stuff that appealed to their imaginations – in fact, it was precisely this sort of flightiness that literature for children sought to keep under wraps. Early writing for young readers was all about control and instruction. Even fairy tales (now considered the foundation of children’s literature) weren’t originally designed for child readers, and were sanitised thoroughly by nineteenth-century moralists to make them ‘suitable’, which is a shame.

I recently attended a lecture about children’s literature in which the speaker discussed Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, as a story which is full of allusions to things kids wouldn’t have a clue about, like history, politics and sexuality but which is, nevertheless, for children. I was inclined to agree. A tale which deals with changing body size, the arbitrary nature of justice in a world you don’t understand, and being utterly lost, are all things familiar to anyone who loves to write or read children’s books, even now. It’s incredible to think it dates from the 1720s.

Throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, texts and stories written with children in mind began to proliferate. However, they were heavy on the moralistic didacticism, and light on the fun. Swiss Family Robinson, published in 1812, is a great adventure story but it was designed to teach. At the Back of the North Wind, from 1868, is a good example of a story which is full of wonder and imagination, but also stuffed with the sickly-sweet idealisation of childhood; between its goody-two-shoes narrator and its puke-tastic ending, it wouldn’t last two seconds with a modern child reader. Little Women was also published in 1868, and it’s admittedly a masterpiece – but it’s also full of lessons, despite being as different from North Wind as it’s possible for two texts to be. I’m not really a fan of either.

Argh! Scary, no? Photo Credit: chicks57 via Compfight cc

Argh! Scary, no?
Photo Credit: chicks57 via Compfight cc

Oscar Wilde did a good job, in my opinion, of marrying the didacticism with wonderful stories. His fairy tales, including The Happy Prince, are still considered masterpieces – though, again, I’m not sure what modern children would make of them. They’re probably more appealing to adults, these days.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland dates, scarily, to 1865; it’s definitely a masterpiece, though it’s also stuffed full of lessons and allusions, not that you’d notice them because the story is so much fun. Considering that this was originally cooked up to keep three little girls amused on a summer’s afternoon, I think it definitely passes the ‘was this intended for children?’ test with flying colours. With Mark Twain and his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, books about adventure which try to teach the world a lesson, as opposed to the children doing the reading, come into their own. I’m not sure how ground-breaking Huck’s relationship with Jim was perceived at the time these books were new, but I can guess that it was pretty spectacular. As the nineteenth century drew to a close we had stories like Kidnapped and Treasure Island and The Jungle Book, all of which are considered masterpieces of children’s literature but which, to me, illustrate the changes in taste between then and now; I’m not sure modern readers have the patience for such monumental works. Kipling’s Stalky & Co., from 1899, would probably be classed as ‘YA’ literature these days; slightly on the risqué side, the stories which make up this book were based on the author’s own recollections of his younger days.

The twentieth century saw Oz, which nobody can argue with; full of allusions and references which children might miss but their parents would not, it and its sequels are definitely masterpieces. The Wind in the Willows and The Reluctant Dragon, from Kenneth Grahame, and Winnie the Pooh from A. A. Milne still charm children today. E. Nesbit’s work, spanning the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is wonderful – The Story of the Treasure Seekers,The Railway Children and more. She influenced writers like Edward Eager whose novels mention some of her characters, entwining them with his own in a sort of ‘story-Otherworld’, which is fantastic. Eager’s The Time Garden is a charming children’s novel from the 1950s, which I love. Her Bastable children also turn up in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and her influence stretched as far as Diana Wynne Jones and other writers who place ordinary children into extraordinary, magic-tinged scenarios. Marjorie Phillips’ Annabel and Bryony, from 1953, is a sweet (if very old-fashioned) story about fairies which hasn’t aged as well as some of its contemporaries, but which is still beautiful. Alan Garner appeared as the 1960s dawned, and remains one of the towering greats of ‘children’s’ literature (even though he never actually defined himself as a writer for children); everyone should read The Weirdstone of BrisingamenThe Moon of Gomrath and Elidor, and that’s just for starters.

And… I should’ve guessed this would take up more than one blog post! The ‘Golden Age of Children’s Literature’ was considered to have taken place in the nineteenth century, but in some ways I think we’re living through it now. Since the mid-twentieth century, I think more masterpieces of children’s literature have been written than existed in the entirety of human culture up to that point, but there’s no room left in this post to talk about them.

I’m sure I’ve missed hundreds of books which others would consider masterpieces, and which I’ve either forgotten about or not managed to read yet. What would you add to the list of Children’s Literature Masterpieces?


At the weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting a woman whom I had met before, years ago, but whose path hadn’t crossed with mine since. She, her husband and their lovely son were attending an event along with my husband and me, and it was great to see her again.

Eventually, however, the question I (nonsensically) dread came up in conversation.

So. What do you do for a living?

Photo Credit: Shandi-lee via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Shandi-lee via Compfight cc

My husband, of course, was able to describe himself, and his role in life, very capably and with great passion and expertise; I was sort of hoping the questioner’s interest in him and his job would take over the discussion and allow me to dodge the bullet. But it was not to be.

When the spotlight turned in my direction, I was like a comedian with a broken funny bone. In my head, I saw myself dropping the mic and fleeing off into the wings, but in real life I had to stutter out an answer, so I said – truthfully – that I was a proofreader and copy-editor.

‘And?’ said my husband, gently. ‘What else?’

‘Um,’ I muttered. ‘And a writer.’

Of course, this caused great interest, mainly because the lady’s husband began to describe how his cousin is one of Ireland’s best-selling women’s fiction writers. Not to be outdone, the lady herself told me she went to school with another of Ireland’s best-selling women’s fiction writers (in Ireland, writers are as common as mushrooms), and so I began to relax a bit. When I told them I wrote children’s books, they waxed lyrical about the picture books their son had loved as a younger child – The Tiger Who Came to Tea, The Hungry Caterpillar, The Gruffalo, all the classics – and then we graduated to discussing David Walliams’ oeuvre, including my (and the young man’s) personal favourite, Gangsta Granny.

They didn’t ask if I’d had any books published or whether I was ‘doing well’; they didn’t ask whether they could pick my work up at their local bookshop. They didn’t turn up their noses when I explained that I hadn’t been published yet, besides a few short stories, but that I was working on it, and they looked suitably impressed when I told them I had an agent.

And that was that.

The conversation moved on to e-books and internet retailing (I soapboxed a bit, unfortunately), and working, and commutes, and schools, and marriage, and families, and all the other wonderful things people discuss when they’re in good company and the chat is flowing. We had a thoroughly enjoyable day.

But when we got home my husband asked me: ‘Why didn’t you tell those people you were a writer, straight up?’ I squirmed a bit as I thought about how to answer him.

How do I get this answer to fit together, then? Photo Credit: CarbonNYC via Compfight cc

How do I get this answer to fit together, then?
Photo Credit: CarbonNYC via Compfight cc

I hated to admit it, but I think the reason was because I was embarrassed.

I have the impression that, to most people, telling them you’re an unpublished writer is a bit like saying ‘I’m a layabout who lolls about in the garden all day long, laughing at the sky,’ or ‘I’m a daytime TV addict, but shh it’s all good because it’s research, yeah?’ Of course, most people don’t actually think this (or, at the very least, they’ll be good enough not to say, or even give the vaguest hint, of it), and they’re usually quite impressed, or at least interested. So, I’m not quite sure where this sense of uncomfortable awkwardness comes from, deep in the heart of me. Is it because I haven’t been successful yet (in a worldly sense)? Is it because people can’t yet walk into their local bookshop and pick up my work?

I think it’s because I’m afraid of being judged, or being considered lazy, or not a ‘proper’ member of society – which is weird.

I firmly believe art and literature are just as important to the proper running of civilisation as science and industry, and that you can’t have technological strides forward without a hand-in-hand development in the arts; having one without the other makes for a dangerously lopsided people. In general terms, I would defend art and literature to the last breath. It’s only when it comes to me, in personal terms, as I try to make my own tiny contribution to the bigger picture, that I begin to feel strange. I have a dread of being judged as a person who does not add anything to the whole, and in some deep core of myself I wonder whether I am a person with anything to offer, an ‘artist’ or just someone who is pretending to be one. The voice in my head going ‘who do you think you are?’ hasn’t quietened yet; perhaps it never will.

My husband told me that I should be proud to tell people what I do, and that I shouldn’t be ashamed to say that I am a writer – and he’s right. I am a complicated little maelstrom of self-doubt, guilt, work ethic and anxiety; it’s amazing I manage to get so much as a sentence on a page, but somehow I get through it, and I keep going. My heart is made of words. Having said that, of course, not everything I’m going to write is going to be good, and most of what’s good may never see the light of day, and even though I’ve made great strides towards achieving my goals I may yet never be published – but I am still a writer.

And if you write – even if it’s only a sentence a week – then you are, too, and I hope you’re able to proclaim it with a great big smile upon your face.

Welcome to a new week, fellow writers!

Book Review Saturday – ‘Only Ever Yours’

This. Book.

It almost broke me, this did. I read it all, in one day, in giant gulps, because I couldn’t be parted from it. I read halfway through the night to get it finished, which meant I was utterly banjaxed, to use a wonderful Irish-English word, the following morning.

So worth it, though.

Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours has been described as a modern-day Handmaid’s Tale, which was what first piqued my interest in it. I am, as are all right-thinking people, a huge fan of Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale is my second favourite of her books (after The Robber Bride, which is genius); Only Ever Yours has a similar premise, but in so many ways it’s even more chilling than its predecessor. Where Atwood’s book showed a female character, subjugated in every possible way, struggling to free herself from the oppression of her existence, Only Ever Yours shows an even more horrifying scenario – one in which any attempt at creating a space in which women can taste even the barest hint of agency seems ultimately pointless.

It’s brilliant.

It’s also tragic, triggering, upsetting, and rage-inducing – but it should be required reading for everyone who cares about the world we live in and what we’re doing to our girls and women.

We are introduced to freida, one of the ‘eves’ (genetically engineered girls, born of plastic ‘wombs’ and placed from early childhood in the School, where they learn how to be submissive, obedient man-pleasing objects), and the novel is narrated through her (perfect) eyes. She has one best friend among her fellow eves, a girl named isabel; they and the other eves, such as the magnificent megan and the vacant twins liz and jessie (I’m sure there’s a fangirl reference to Sweet Valley High going on here, which gave me such a wry smile as I read) live together in what I imagined as a dormitory full of independent sleep chambers. Every possible surface is mirrored. Mantras such as Fat girls should be made obsolete and Good girls are always happy and easy-going and There is always room for improvement are played regularly over loudspeakers. The eves have been taught since childhood to endlessly compare themselves to one another, uploading images of their faces and bodies to a version of social media called MyFace where ‘games’ in which they choose which ‘face’ is the best, and which body is the most perfect, are their primary means of communication and ‘entertainment’. Rankings among the eves are mercilessly fought for – isabel was #1 for years, and even though freida is her friend, when isabel is knocked off the top spot for reasons which aren’t made clear until the end of the book, freida can’t help but wish that she could be the eve who replaces her.

She isn’t. Instead, it’s megan, and we see isabel slowly begin to destroy herself. This leaves freida in an impossible position – to jockey for favour with megan, or stick with isabel, a girl whom she loves deeply but who is sliding so far down the rankings as to make her dangerous, and whose presence in freida’s life may damage her prospects for the future. Prospects which might spell the difference between life and death, for the Inheritants are coming – the top 10 most powerful young men in the Euro-Zone, who want to choose an eve for their very own. There are only 10 men, but there are twenty-nine eves…

I couldn’t believe how sharply observed this novel was. Things which are so familiar to me, as a woman who grew up very imperfect-looking, are all over the story. Backhanded compliments. ‘Concern trolling’ – which wasn’t called that when I was young, but which certainly existed. Perfectly judged comments designed to find another girl’s weak point and shatter her without giving her an opportunity to mount a defence for fear of ‘losing face.’ Power play between teenage girls which would put most four-star generals to shame. The intricacy of peer groups, and the ties which bind girls to one another – not friendship or love, but survival. Complicated, to say the least, relationships with food, nutrition, exercise and body image. The insular, isolated, high-pressured environment of the School – which mirrors, in so many ways, the anxiety and stress inside the minds of so many teenage girls. It is no surprise that every surface in this book is reflective.

Hip-hop culture and its misogynistic portrayal of women is depicted – but instead of the girls taking up arms against the woman-hating message of the song they hear, they wholeheartedly embrace the lesson that they are nothing but slaves to a man’s lust. Reality TV, where ‘characters’ are shown receiving beatings from their husbands, are understood as instruction manuals for the girls’ future lives as ‘companions’ (passive ‘wives’ to powerful men like the Inheritants, whose only objective is to bear sons and be euthanised at forty). Pornography is a way of life, and girls who are to become ‘concubines’ see their futures reflected in it. The third group of women – those who are not appealing to men, and for whom no other use can be found – become ‘chastities’, whose job it is to teach in the School and prepare the next generations of girls to become mindless, eternally pleasing and aesthetically perfect women. So much of what O’Neill depicts here already exists in our world, in some form; it doesn’t take a huge leap to see the things we live with every day becoming the horror she so expertly depicts in this novel.

Here is an extract which, I think, is illustrative of the novel as a whole, from pages 60-61 in my edition:

‘Step forward, #727.’
The glass doors part. She stands before us.
‘Remove your dressing gown.’
There’s silence. christy unties the white towelling robe and lets it fall to the ground. She’s wearing pink lace underwear, small lumps of flesh spilling out over the knickers, the inner edges of her thighs close to touching.

#727 has been lazy. She has been lazy and she has been greedy. She deserves to be punished. Don’t you agree?’
Flashes from digi-cams and eFones are exploding like a flood. My hands are clammy, fear crawling up my spine bone by bone, unfurling in my throat.
‘Don’t you agree, girls?’ A note of warning has entered her voice.
‘Yes, chastity-ruth.’
‘I can’t hear you. Does #727 deserve to be punished?’
‘YES, chastity-ruth.’ We have to give her what she wants. We will give her whatever she wants.
She reaches into the pocket of her robe and retrieves a marker, someone behind me gasping at the rare sight of a writing implement. Wielding it like a blade, she walks around christy, once, twice, three times, before cutting into christy’s fair skin, drawing vivid red circles on her body.
‘What is #727, girls? What is she?’
We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.
‘She’s fat, girls. She’s fat and disgusting. Say it with me. She’s fat. Fat. Fat.’

This book is so disturbing because, despite being a fantasy of the future, it is the reality through which so many people are living, even now. It is the 24-7, always-on, internet generation, in which judgement of others makes you a better person and where you are always on the lookout for someone more flawed than you are. It’s a world of ‘fashion’ magazines, with their ‘circles of shame’ and their judgement of women’s bodies and their relentless focus on appearance, attractiveness, perfection. It’s a world in which how you look, and how you’re seen, is everything. It’s a world where young girls are taught that they are not people in their own right, but they exist only to please. It’s the world in which we teach little girls not to cry or make a fuss or get dirty in case they ruin their ‘prettiness’; it’s the world in which we deny little girls the right to an education because what good is it, being literate, when you don’t need to read to give birth or wash dishes? It’s the world in which little boys are encouraged to be whatever they like – not without its own pressure, of course – and little girls are taught to obey.

It is the world we live in now. And it is horrifying.

Only Ever Yours is a marvellous book, but it is hard to read in places if you have any experience with body-image issues, disordered eating, cyberbullying, domestic violence or sexual assault. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be read: on the contrary, it makes it even more important. It’s the most clear-eyed, intelligent and compelling dissection of our vacuous and hate-filled society that I’ve ever seen. Like lancing any boil, it is painful – but it is necessary. If you know and love a teenage girl – indeed, even a teenage boy – read this book, then let them read it, and discuss the issues it brings up. Perhaps that’s the first step we can all take in changing our thinking for the benefit of everyone – and we get to read a brilliant story, masterfully written, to sweeten the deal. I can’t recommend it highly enough.