Monthly Archives: January 2015

Book Review Saturday – ‘The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August’

This strange, remarkable book is written by a ‘debut’ author (or, at least, it’s the first book to be written under the name ‘Claire North’), but the mind behind The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a writing veteran. She has written under the name Kate Griffin, but I first encountered her as the extraordinary children’s author Catherine Webb. Harry August is far from being a children’s novel, though; it is a science-fictiony, literary fictiony, philosophical ramble through the history of the twentieth century, told through the lens of one man’s unusual, and well-lived, life.



Harry August is an ouroboran, or a kalachakra, a person who is reborn every time they die. Not reborn as someone else, however – as themselves. Every time Harry dies, he is reborn in 1919, just as he was the first time, and he lives as the same person, born to the same parents, in the same place, with the same family. The only difference is: he remembers being here before, and he knows he is not ‘normal’. His first life proceeds in the standard fashion, but in his second life he kills himself before he is ten, convinced he is insane – but this is a common problem with kalachakrans. As soon as he is born again, his memories of his first two lives intact, Harry begins to realise what is happening – and so begins his tale. Harry’s memory, it turns out, is unusual; he’s also a ‘mnemonic’, or a person with perfect recall of all their lives. Not all ouroborans are like this: most of them start to forget things after a few lives have passed, but not Harry. This, of course, makes him both powerful and vulnerable as the book goes on.

The most interesting thing about Harry’s lives is that even though they all begin the same way, and they all have similar aspects (he usually dies of the same disease, if he lives long enough; he is not really a fan of marriage, taking only one wife he truly loves in all his lives, though he does marry once more for convenience and another time out of respectful affection; he makes a lot of money through gambling, as he knows who will win every major race in every major sporting event), everything else about them is different. He meets different people, goes to different places, takes up different professions. This is a time travel novel, in many respects, and it deals with the complexities and paradoxes of the genre (the dangers of messing with the future, primarily), but somehow it is different, too. We’re not explicitly told what happens to the ‘worlds’ or timelines Harry lives in every time he ‘dies’; when he is reborn, does his previous life snuff out of existence, like someone has pressed Reset, for everyone but Harry himself? Does it continue in an alternate universe? We never really know, and truthfully it’s not really that important. I loved the concept behind the book, that of living one’s life over and over (it also turns up in a classic SF novel from the 1980s, Replay by Ken Grimwood), but it’s the setting, and the dialogue, and the espionage, and the thoroughness with which every possible imaginable consequence of this sort of existence is explored, which sets this book apart. Also, the research, and the lightness of touch which means we move effortlessly from 1930s England to 1950s China to a research base in the wastes of Siberia, and it all seems real enough to leap off the page.

It’s hard to give an idea of the story, because – being honest – I’m not entirely clear on all Harry’s ‘timelines.’ I can only imagine the size of the crib-sheets the author must have had to prepare in order to keep all the versions of Harry straight as she wrote this book. I can’t remember in which life he first meets his friend and nemesis, Victor. I can’t remember which life he’s in when he meets Virginia, the woman who is part of the Cronus Club, which is an organisation of fellow ouroborans designed to take care of and nurture those who are new to the lifestyle and who, understandably, find it a little overwhelming. Harry is far from being the only ouroboran in existence, but they keep themselves to themselves, amassing great wealth and leaving it in trust for future generations. They are able to pass messages up and down the timeline, though these can take generations to reach their destination, and it is in Harry’s eleventh life, when he is on his deathbed again, that a seven-year-old ouroboran girl comes into his hospital room and tells him a message which has been passed down through the lifetimes from a thousand years in the future: the world is ending. Not only that, but it’s starting to get closer and closer. Ouroborans are being hunted, wiped out by forces unknown either by being forced to forget their past lives or by being murdered in utero, and the clock is ticking.

So, in Harry’s next life, he determines to get to the bottom of this mystery, while also evading capture and destruction.

There’s a lot of interiority in this book; we spend most of its 400 pages inside Harry’s mind. I love reading dialogue, and there’s not a lot of it in this book, by my standards, and what there is seems a little formal and ‘samey’; it can be hard to tell who is speaking, for instance, during Harry and Victor’s discussions about philosophy, science, and the nature of reality. This, though, is because they are both academics at Cambridge in the 1940s, and it’s true to this setting and era. The relationship between Harry and Victor is the most significant one in the novel, and I loved how it was managed; in lifetime after lifetime, they meet and influence one another in so many different ways, until one betrays the other. But it is this very act of betrayal which might be the key to solving everything.

This book was no easy read. It is not action-packed, and it is somewhat slow in places, but when a novel is dealing with such huge concepts, this is no surprise. I was left floored by North’s imagination and technical ability, but I’ve read some of the books she wrote under another name, which were written while she was still in her teens, and they showed exactly the same precision of language and depth of imagery as this book does. Learning that Catherine Webb and Claire North were one and the same came as no surprise to me; I could see the same skills she displayed in her earlier work coming to the fore again here, and it was a very pleasing thing. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that Claire North isn’t an ouroboran herself; it seems unlikely, to me, that one young woman (not yet thirty, I believe) could be so accomplished, had she not had centuries of living already behind her.

Hmm. Something to ponder…

Feeling WiP-ped

The poppers have all been popped. The bubbly’s been drunk. The streamers have faded and the clean-up’s been done and life, in short, has had to return to normal.

So, yes. I got a book deal. It’s fabulous, and all, but it doesn’t mean all my work here is done, or anything. Quite the opposite: it means I’m at the start of something which will, hopefully, take up the rest of my working life.

Writing books.

Photo Credit: srgpicker via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: srgpicker via Compfight cc

I’ve been working on a new WiP for the past few weeks, and the other day I took my word-count past the 20K mark. This, I have to admit, feels pretty good. The story is flowing (so far); things are holding together; I’m even enjoying it, despite the sheer slog. For, even though my mind has been all over the place these past few weeks, this is no time to rest on one’s laurels; rather, it’s time to push forward and keep going. One tiny victory doesn’t mean the battle’s won, and all that.

A general rule when you’re writing is: never gather dust. As in, when you’re waiting to hear back from an agent, or when you’re chewing your nails as competition results loom, or when your book is out on submission with publishers, or – as in my case – when you’re in that limbo between accepting a deal and getting on with the necessary paperwork, the best thing you can do is keep writing. Work on something else. Take your mind off what is, no doubt, the giant crater of stress which has smashed its way into your tender, tender psyche. Soothe yourself with more words, and do whatever you can to keep yourself from dwelling too much on things you can’t control (like the entire publishing industry). Plus, the fact that my deal was for two books means that anything I write which goes towards a second book is a good thing. (I’m conveniently ignoring the fact that my publisher has yet to see, sanction or even vaguely approve of this second book I’m writing, but we can worry about that later. Right?)

It might interest some of you old-timers around here to know that my new WiP is (drumroll…) Tider. Mark III. Yes, yes, I know – haven’t we been down this road before? Well – we have. Tider was the first book I wrote when, as a newbie with no idea about word counts and such, I created a 150,000 word beast of a novel which was part SF, part epic fantasy, part YA and all rubbish. I rewrote it last year in a much neater package, remodelling it as a futuristic MG story about a fracturing family and one girl’s bravery, and it was loads better.

Loads better, but still not right.

The idea for Tider is one which has been in my head for years. I have been tormented by it for at least a decade, now, and every so often the babble of the characters becomes too much. I thought, when writing the last version (the futuristic MG), that I’d cracked it, but it proved not to be the case. The core of the idea is still there, waiting to be told properly, and this newest version is my attempt to finally put it to rest.

I’m a bit afraid that, much like my beloved Inigo Montoya when (SPOILER ALERT) he finally kills the Six-Fingered Man, my life will fall apart when I finally tell this story the way it should be told, and get it out of my brain for once and for all. ‘I have been in the revenge business so long,’ Inigo says, ‘that now that it is over, I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.’

Preach it, Inigo.



I have been thinking about Tider for so long that now that I’ve finally written it*, I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.

Well. I can always move on to my next idea, which is already starting to take shape. I have a heroine, and she has a name (and it’s amazing), and she has a very cool pet which she’s trained to do incredible things, and she…

But, yeah. *ahem* We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, here. Write the current WiP first, and then think about the next. This time, I’m determined to write Tider the way it should’ve been written all along, but if it doesn’t work – again – then I think I’ll hang up my spurs. Maybe I’ll sell the idea to Neil Gaiman and see what he makes out of it.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad plan…

Happy weekend, everyone. Tune in tomorrow for my review of a brilliant, and astonishingly accomplished, book, Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and with any luck I’ll see y’all back here on Monday.


*Fingers crossed I’ll be able to say this in a few months!

Wednesday Writing – ‘Credit Due’



Credit Due

It was the hottest day so far that summer, and Mama needed sugar.

‘Go on down to the store,’ she told me, squinting out the window. ‘Ask old man Bailey to let you have it on credit. You hear?’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said.

‘That’s my baby,’ she said, turning to face me, blinking the dusty path outside from her eyes. ‘Mama’ll make some lemonade, when you get home. Don’t hurry, now. I think I’ll go take me a nap.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said, already running for the door.

‘Walk!’ yelled Mama as I thumped my way out into the day, the sun like the warm hand of God on my skin. ‘Ladies walk, Ella-Marie!’

Ain’t a lady yet, I thought as I skipped away from the house, my toes like bruised earthworms against the yellowish soil. My knees winked out at me from underneath my hem. I put my face to the sky and dipped my nose right into it, my mind already swirling as I thought about the Coca-Cola girl hanging over the register down at Bailey’s General Store, and how her white dress shone like an angel, and her skin looked like it tasted of ice-cream…

‘Well, hey there, Ella-Marie,’ came a voice, and my eyes popped open. I screwed them up against the sunshine, feeling like my air had turned to dirt. ‘How you doin’ today?’

‘Hey, Mister Hadley,’ I said, my pulse rusty in the back of my throat.

‘Your Mama at home?’ Mister Hadley smiled at me, his skin all nasty, looking like sour milk with flyblown strawberry preserve smeared on top. He clutched his hat in his pink-scrubbed hands, his knuckles like rotten teeth and his suit just patched enough to still be respectable. I chewed the inside of my mouth.

‘Yessir,’ I muttered.

‘Well, ain’t that fine,’ he said. His smile, like a dog dead in a gutter, didn’t move a muscle as he reached those pale fingers into his pocket. He took them out and there was a nickel entwined in them like a trapped bird, and he stretched them out to me like I had the key to its freedom.

‘Well, go on,’ he said, laughing. ‘Take it. Get yourself somethin’ nice.’

I reached for the coin, my own dark fingers hot and suddenly sweaty and covered in filth and his cool now, like iron, like ice. My own dirty and shameful and his strong and steady.

I snatched my hand back.

His smile sang a wrong note then, and his face fell apart. He frowned, and threw the nickel in the dirt.

‘Git, then,’ he said. ‘Go on! I got business to discuss with your Mama, so don’t you go disturbin’ us, now. Y’hear me?’

I had long left him behind before I remembered: Mama’s sleepin’. She said she was sleepin’! And my ears started burning with embarrassment not my own, imagining Mama disheveled, surprised, ashamed.

But I did not go back.

Old man Bailey looked at me over his spectacles as he wrote the value of the sugar in his book. The store was empty but for us two, and the air tasted like sweat.

‘You tell your Mama to come in and settle up, Ella-Marie, just as soon as she can. I ain’t got endless reserves of credit. Times are hard for everyone, not jus’ you colored folk.’

‘Yessir,’ I said, my arms already aching.

‘Get on home, now, child,’ he said. ‘And be sure to give your Mama my regards.’

‘Yessir,’ I said, the sack of sugar like a kicking piglet.

I scuffed my feet as I walked, trailing my toes in the dust and shifting the sugar from arm to arm. My fingers slipped around it, like a tongue struggling with an unfamiliar word, and my shoulders wailed like I was being nailed to the cross. Sweat trickled down my back.

I came upon Mister Hadley’s nickel eventually. It glinted in the sunlight like the eye of a buried monster, waiting. I slid the sack of sugar to the ground and propped it against my shaking, sticky leg as I bent to pick the coin up out of the dirt. I turned it over and over, buffalo-face-buffalo-face, wondering what Mama’d say when she saw it.

And eventually I hoisted up the sugar again, and I kept walking.

‘Mama?’ I called, as the screen-door thunked shut. My brown feet slapped on the browner boards as I crossed the neat parlor, Daddy’s rifle still in one corner even though the man himself was just a memory, just a word. ‘Mama?’ The door to her room was thrown wide, and I remembered – again – that she was sleeping, and a rush of sour shame washed all through me. I tiptoed to the kitchen and shouldered the sack up onto the table, and took a breath. My throat felt raw.

And the door to the back was standing open.

I crept to it. Outside, the laundry flapped in the breeze like a preacher mid-sermon, hands raising to heaven in hope and fear, before sinking, disappointed and despairing, to earth once more. The scrubland between our house and the Wesleys’, half a mile away, yawned into the distance. Mama wasn’t anywhere.

I turned, my ears throbbing, and crossed the room until Mama’s bedroom door was staring at me, dark as a crow’s eye. Everything was still. I dropped the nickel and it rolled, sounding like the top being torn off the world, until it fell between two boards and was silent.

Mama was lying on her bed like an unfurled flower, her eyes still full of the dusty path outside. Her mouth was open, nothing coming out of it but slow redness, ink from a broken bottle. Her dress gaped, like it was kissing me goodbye.

And all around her, dollar bills were scattered one after another after another, like confetti at the feet of a bride.



This post will do what it says on the tin: I simply want to say a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who contacted me – and there were lots of you – to say ‘congratulations’ after my announcement last week that I was successful in gaining a book deal.

Photo Credit: gregwake via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: gregwake via Compfight cc

As soon as the word was out, every social media account I have went crazy with notifications. People from my home town, old school friends, friends of my parents, people who sort-of vaguely know me through family members, and (quite possibly) a few people who don’t know me at all but got caught up in the excitement of it all, sent me so many messages that I couldn’t keep up. I had Tweets galore (and I even gained a few new followers! True, I lost a whack of ’em shortly afterwards, but as they come, so they go), and I had some lovely email messages from a writers’ group I’m part of (to which I shall respond!) In short, I had so many messages that I couldn’t reply to them all, though I did try my best. I wanted to say, though, that I appreciated every single message and that I’m massively pleased (not to mention slightly blown away and even a little embarrassed) by all the support and positivity, but most of all I’m extremely grateful. Thank you, everyone.

But, do you know something? It’s an overwhelming thing, getting a book deal. My anxiety demons have been awake and roaring for the past while – particularly during those weeks I spent knowing, behind the scenes, that the announcement was coming, but being unable to share it with anyone besides a very select and carefully chosen few – and for a person who, like me, isn’t comfortable with being in the spotlight, now that the announcement’s been made, it’s a weird mix of feelings. I’m very glad and grateful, to you all as well as to my steadfast family, but I’m also terrified. Nauseated with fear, in fact. That’s not something I expected. I read the most amazing blog post over the weekend, which – somehow – I managed to find on Twitter amid the tumult, and here‘s a link to it. You know how, sometimes, you read something and you think: That was meant for me? Even if the person who wrote it doesn’t know you, and will never know you, and certainly didn’t write anything with you in mind, it still speaks directly to your heart and your experience. That blog post is one of those things. I’ve never read anything which comforted me so much, and I think it’s important to talk about things like this – how it can be a terrifying thing to achieve a dream. How it can make you feel things you never expected to feel. How, sometimes, you get to where you wanted to go and you still feel lost, and how frightening that is.

In saying that I’m feeling things I didn’t expect, I’m not trying to take away from my gratitude. I am so glad that so many people were pleased for me, and wanted to share their congratulations, and that so many of my friends and family took the time to get in touch. It was wonderful to have good news to share, and I’m hugely glad to be part of such a supportive, positive and loving community.

But still.

I feel weird.

And, what’s more, I’m allowing myself to feel weird. I’ve been trying to suppress it and work through it and ignore it for months now, but from today, I’m going to own it. I’m going to climb the mountain of Weird and take a deep breath once I get to the top, and hopefully I won’t ever have to climb it again. The only way to deal with your feelings is to acknowledge they’re there, I’ve learned; suppression only serves to compact them in the base of your psyche, turning them over time into a hard layer of bad thinking which becomes difficult to shift. If I can look my weird feelings in the eye and say: ‘Hey. I know you’re there. You and me, we’re going to talk later, okay?’, I think it will help me hugely. And if more of us spoke up about the fact that sometimes, especially at the most unexpected moments, feelings of awkwardness and discomfort and fear and anxiety can come out of nowhere and overwhelm us – even when it seems like we should be at our strongest, or our happiest – I think it would make things easier for others who are also going through it, feeling like they’re totally alone.

Nobody is ever alone. I have learned this lesson in the last few days. I am part of a huge network of people, all connected by time and friendship and family and community, and I’m extraordinarily grateful for that. But I’ve also learned that no matter what you’re feeling, you’re never alone, either. It’s incredibly hard to share and be vulnerable (and I’m grateful, also, to Annabel Pitcher, the author of the blog post I linked to above, for being so open and candid about her own struggles), but if we all had the courage to share our fears, and let the people around us know that we’re all in this together, it could have a massively positive effect on our community.

I’m a weirdo. So, quite possibly, are you. And that’s perfectly okay.

Thank you for reading, for supporting, for being with me throughout this journey. Thank you for being part of my story. I’m grateful, too, to be part of yours.

It’s Official!

Yesterday, I had a wonderful task to take care of. It was the most wonderful task an aspiring author can be given, in fact, and it was this: I was finally able to break the news that I’ve been successful in gaining a two-book deal with Knopf USA for my début novel The Eye of the North. Yahoo!

The book is slated for release in fall of 2016, all going well, and I couldn’t be prouder of the fact that the publisher is one of the most prestigious in the world. I’m also really proud that it’s this particular story which will be my launching pad into the great big world of publishing, because I love it with all my heart and it’s the book I know I was meant to write. I’m so looking forward to getting to work on shaping the text with my new editor, Melanie Cecka Nolan, and I hope that between the two of us we’ll turn this story into the best version of itself that it can possibly be. I’m very fortunate, and I know it!

This is a post I’ve dreamed about writing, and for a very long time I was convinced it would never be a reality. (To be honest, even as I’m here writing it I’m not convinced it’s a reality, but I’m assured otherwise by folk who know their stuff, so I have to believe it’s true). The process of bringing a book from idea-seed to finished draft to polished draft and finally to a publication deal has been a long and arduous one (and one which I’ve exhaustively chronicled here, so don’t worry – I’m not going to rehash it!) but one thing I know for sure: without the support and encouragement of my family and friends (including, and sometimes especially, my web-based friends, many of whom I’ve never met in person), I wouldn’t be here. I want to thank you all most sincerely for your kind words, your advice, and your interaction; for celebrating my achievements with me and for commiserating on my losses; for your interest in my words and work; for your relentless enthusiasm and your certainty that one day, I would know how it felt to say ‘I am going to be a published author.’ During the moments when I didn’t believe it myself, you guys believed for me, and that got me through.

I can’t thank you all enough.

Photo Credit: @ifatma. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: @ifatma. via Compfight cc

Writing and querying The Eye of the North has been the hardest work I’ve ever done, and I know there’s a lot of hard work ahead – but I’m ready and able for that. Bringing the book this far has been a complicated, emotional, frustrating, stressful, exhilarating and fascinating journey, and very little of it has felt how I expected it to feel; the learning curve has been immense, and sometimes I’ve found it hard to hang on and keep going. Having said that, I have no regrets. However, I do know how much I owe to everyone who has helped me, primarily my wonderful husband and our amazingly supportive family, who have always been so proud of me and so committed to making this happen. It has never ceased to amaze me how many people showed me unstinting support, right from the beginning of this crazy journey, and I can honestly say that not one person (at least, in my hearing!) ever expressed doubt that I could achieve this goal. I know how lucky I am to be able to say that, and I won’t ever forget it. I also know how much I owe my agent, Polly Nolan, and particularly how much I owe Sarah Davies, the powerhouse behind the Greenhouse Literary Agency, who have fought hard for me and my book from day one.

I hope I’ve made everyone proud, and that you’re all glad that your confidence wasn’t misplaced. I hope that when the finished book is in your hands, you’ll be glad to have been a part of it. More than anything, I hope that anyone who picks up The Eye of the North will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, and that the love I have for every word will shine out from the pages. After all, that’s the only thing that really matters – getting the story out, and making sure it’s as good as I can get it. After that, it’s all up to the reader.

For the moment, the book will be published only in North America – so, the US and Canada – but I’m hopeful we’ll strike a book deal for the UK and Commonwealth markets, too. As soon as I have any news, about anything, you’d better believe I’ll share it here as soon as I’m given the green light, and I hope you’ll enjoy travelling with me from book deal to publication as much as you seem to have enjoyed the journey from the very beginning to here! Thank you all, again, and I hope all your Fridays are fabulous.

Have a slightly weird, awkward hug from Emmeline, and a grubby, sticky one (that smells a bit funny) from Thing, and a giant bear-hug from me. Just because. We love y’all. See you back here very soon.


Boulevard of Dreams

Even though I don’t drive (yet, at least), and even if I could I certainly wouldn’t drive motorcycles, I’ve always had a fascination with two wheels. Since my earliest childhood, I’ve loved Harley-Davidson motorcycles in particular, and part of me will always thrill to hear the throaty roar of a loud engine, even if the idea of actually riding a hog is too terrifying to countenance. I can’t explain why I love motorbikes so much; they’re beautiful machines, of course, but it’s more than just that, I think. They symbolise freedom and nonconformity and a certain ‘chasing the horizon’ way of life, which has always appealed to my soul, even if my innate carefulness (and constant lack of money!) quails in the face of it.

It could also be tied up with my devotion to classic rock and roll, too. There’s always that aspect.

Photo Credit: jimbrickett via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jimbrickett via Compfight cc

Part of this fondness for motorcycles encompasses a love of the classic American road trip of ‘Route 66’. As long as I can remember, I’ve known about Route 66, and it’s been a lifelong dream of mine to travel the length of it. When I close my eyes I can see the straight road, bounded by flat countryside to left and right, and the rolling mountains on the horizon; I can step inside the diners and gas stations that dot the route. Of course, I’ve never set foot in the United States, so all of this is purely imaginary – and, I’m sure, largely idealised. It’s no wonder America seems like the land of dreams to people like me, when I’m basing my knowledge of it entirely on movies and music and long-held ambitions.

Then, last night, while flicking idly from channel to channel on the TV, I came across a documentary about travelling Route 66 on a motorcycle. I’d missed the very beginning, but I was immediately drawn in. I watched as the adventurer racked up mile after mile on this, my favourite road in the world, and so much of it was exactly like how I’d imagined. Wide, flat, open sky, totally straight road with nothing in your way, the only sound that of your own engine. It looked like pure heaven. The subject of the documentary met interesting and eccentric people in every little town he stopped in, people who were warm and welcoming and wanted him to feel at home, but he also saw at first hand the decline of some of these small towns, and the reality of what Route 66 has become.

Route 66 was (I learned last night) originally designed and built to connect up the small towns and cities it passed through. It was supposed to be an artery, bringing together the city of Chicago and the west coast of America, and was a lifeline to those emigrating West during the Great Depression and after. However, in recent years an Interstate has been built not far from Route 66, and it has taken away a lot of the traffic that would once have used it. This means that some of the small towns on Route 66 are dying, and the road itself has been left to fall into disrepair in several spots.

I hadn’t realised this, and I found it so upsetting. It’s one of these things you can’t explain, and one of those moments when you’re broadsided by emotion that comes from a very deep place. It was hard to watch the show’s host, a skilled motorcyclist with years of experience, struggle to control his vehicle on the dreadfully pockmarked road as it wound its way through Oklahoma City, and to watch his sadness as he passed through small towns which would once have been vibrant and bustling and which are now shells of their former selves – with the busy Interstate roaring with traffic a couple of miles away. It made me think about dreams, and how different they can look up close, and how working your way towards something you’ve always dreamed of might seem like the hard slog – but it’s not. It’s actually staying on the road once your dream begins to take shape that’s the challenge. It’s only when you’re on the road that the potholes and the re-routes and the detours and the dead ends start to appear. Getting on your motorcycle, starting the engine, looking at your map, and beginning to drive are all necessary parts of following the dream, but when the road begins to crack beneath your wheels, it takes grit not to turn back.

In the end, I’m sure the journey was worth it for the motorcyclist; I’m sure my own personal journey will be worth it for me, too, but I reserve the right to grin ruefully at how, sometimes, you think you’ve finally understood something only for the road to twist beneath you and send you off on another journey completely. It doesn’t mean taking the trip wasn’t a good idea – it just means you may not end up where you thought you wanted to go. All I know is, I’m not going to turn back now, wherever my road is going to lead me.

(And yes, in case you’re curious, I do still want to travel Route 66, even if it’s crumbled into dust by the time I get there. Some dreams will never die!)

Photo Credit: Gouldy99 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Gouldy99 via Compfight cc

We Have Ways of Making You Talk…

The very kind and talented Brian S. Creek (check out his blog, ladies and gentlefolk) nominated me for a Liebster Award just before Christmas. Now, things have been sort of all over the shop for me since then, and so this is the first chance I’m getting to address the questions asked of me. Also, it’s true that this nomination makes my third (count ’em!) Liebster nomination, and so, at this stage, there’s probably very little left about me that y’all don’t know.

But, nevertheless, let’s give these here questions a shot. Ready? Buckle up!

And make sure your trays are in the upright position, while you're at it... Photo Credit: frankieleon via Compfight cc

And make sure your trays are in the upright position, while you’re at it…
Photo Credit: frankieleon via Compfight cc

If you could have any super power for a day, what would it be?

I’ve often thought about this question, and I remember answering it before in terms of how I’d love to have the words to solve all arguments, without causing anyone any offence. I’d still love to have that power, but I think – given the world we live in, and the events of recent times, and my feelings of utter helplessness in the face of all of it – that I’d quite like to be a version of a human Care Bear, or something. I’d love to have the power to spread love and compassion throughout the world, and to make everyone think first of others, and then themselves. I’d love to be able to make people see the world from the point of view of another person. That would be an amazing superpower – except, to have any effect, I’d have to have it for a lot longer than one day.

One day would be a start, though.

Who is the most famous person you’ve met?

So, if you’ve been hanging out here for a while, you’ll know about this. I reckon Neil Gaiman is probably the most famous person I’ve ‘met’, if squeaking at an author at a book signing counts as ‘meeting.’ Besides that, I’ve met a President (of Ireland, so not as cool as some other presidents), and I almost met the Princess Royal once (that’s Princess Anne, Her Majesty the Queen’s daughter, for those not in the know). I was in the same room as her and breathed the same air, but didn’t quite get to shake the royal gloved hand. Oh, well.

If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be and why?

Argh, you see? One of these ‘impossible to answer’ questions. I’d love to live in Reykjavík, just because I’ve been in love with it, and with Iceland, all my life. I’d love to live on Svalbard. I want to live in Tromso. I would love to live in Paris, because I adore that city. I’d love to live in Dubrovnik, because it’s beautiful (and old). I’d love to live in the middle of nowhere in the wilderness of northern Canada. I’d love to live in Tasmania, because one of my favourite people in the world is there.

So I guess I should probably say I’m happy where I am. *sigh*

What was the first story you can remember writing?

I had a great teacher in primary school named Mrs Mythen. I loved her, and she – I’m pretty sure – was fond of me, too. She knew I loved English and writing, and that whenever the class had a spelling- or writing-related task to complete, that I’d be done before the others, and so she used to give me extra work to keep me quiet. We used to write little stories together, and we used also to write poems together, where I’d write one verse and the teacher would write another, and so on. One of these poems was about a witch and her overflowing cauldron, I remember, and it was lots of fun. It also got me used to taking criticism – Mrs Mythen was a hard taskmistress!

I’ve talked before about how my first ‘story’ was a sequel to The Little Prince, and this is true, but upon giving the question some serious consideration this morning, I think perhaps my witchy poem was earlier. I’d have been about six years old, maybe.

Which book do you wish you’d written and why?

I’d love to be facetious here and say ‘The Little Red Book’ or ‘The Bible’ (because sales, darnit), but no. I wish I’d written so many books (the Earthsea books, The Dark is Rising sequence, basically anything by Neil Gaiman and/or Jeanette Winterson), so I’ll say this: I wish I’d written my own next book. I hope to always have ideas, and the space in my mind to complete them, and the peace in my heart to do them justice, and so I’ll always wish to have written the book I’m currently working on to the best of my ability, just to have to opportunity to move on to the next.

If you could write a sequel to a movie that doesn’t already have one how would it go?

This is easy. I’d write a sequel to Labyrinth where I was Sarah, and I’d fight my way to the goblin city just so I could sweep Jareth the Goblin King off his booted feet. Mrs Goblin King has a ring to it, right?



If you could be on a writing panel with three other authors, who would they be?

Good question. I guess it depends what sort of writing panel we’re talking about: if it was a kidlit writing panel, then I’d choose Frances Hardinge, Alan Garner (even though he doesn’t technically write for children, apparently) and Catherine Fisher. If it was an SF/fantasy writing panel, it’d be unlikely I’d be asked, but I’d choose Ursula leGuin, Neil Gaiman and the late, lamented Robert Holdstock.

You’re given a time travel device that allows only one time jump. What date do you go to?

I’d love to say Chaucerian London, but I know I’d last about three seconds in the mud and dirt and ordure, so I wouldn’t want to go there and have no way of getting back. In fact, I don’t like going anywhere without a clear escape plan, so this question is giving me the sweats.

Let’s say I choose ‘tomorrow’, and leave it at that. (Phew!)

What’s your biggest regret to date?

My regrets are mainly for stuff I didn’t do, rather than things I did. I have fallen out with friends, which I regret terribly, and I didn’t say something to someone when I could have which might have changed the course of their life entirely – but then, things have worked out extremely well for that person, regardless, so maybe things happened just as they were supposed to. I find it very hard to forgive myself for ‘failings’, so I try to live my life regret-free as far as possible. It’s just neater that way.

If you could live in any fictional world (filmed or written) where would it be?

Another question I’ve often thought about. I love Hobbiton (because who doesn’t?) and Lothlorien, either the filmed or written versions, but actually I think I’d love to live in the world of Star Trek. Post-money, post-race, post-gender discrimination, the entire galaxy working for peace and reconciliation, and on top of all that we get to fly spaceships and use ray guns? Sign me up, Scotty.

What are your goals for 2015?

To look after my health; to spend more time with my family; to stop beating myself up psychologically (hahaha!); to write as often as I can and as well as I can; to work very hard on a particular project and bring it in on time; to work on being as happy as I can be; to work on being the best person I can be, for everyone I love (and everyone else!)

So, those are the answers to the 11 fiendish questions posed by Brian. I’m not going to tag anyone, mainly because everyone I know who’d be interested in doing a Liebster post has already been Liebstered, repeatedly, but if you fancy taking a punt at these questions, have at it. Just make sure to link back here so I can check out your answers! Thank you, Brian, for including me in your nominations, and I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know me a little better.

Happy Monday, everybody – may your week be wordy and bright!

Book Review Saturday – ‘Vivian Versus the Apocalypse’

Katie Coyle, the author of Vivian Versus the Apocalypse (Hot Key Books, 2013) was the winner of the 2012 Young Writers Prize, and she’s been on my radar ever since. I’ve been interested in this, her début novel, ever since I read the blurb for it – a young girl whose parents are Raptured at the end of the world, leaving her behind – and even though it took me a while to get around to buying and reading it, I’d never lost that spark of interest.



Vivian is only being published in America this month under the title Vivian Apple at the End of the World, despite its author being American herself (one of the stranger things about publishing is how the different markets have different time-scales, sometimes!) and I was glad to finally have a chance to pick up a copy just before Christmas.

The idea behind this book is certainly off-the-charts – I mean, it was a strong enough hook to keep me interested for over a year, and that’s saying something – but I’m not sure I ever got fully on board with the execution. Besides the knockout central concept, other good things about the book included the fact that I really liked Vivian, and I loved the character of her best friend Harp, and I also loved that there was no huge focus on angsty, twisty love relationships (in particular I thought Harp’s attitude to sex and relationships was refreshing and good to read about, at least in relation to her own love life. She does give Vivian a smattering of strange advice in parts, though). I thought the book was well written, structured and paced, and that it had some wonderful touches in its description and dialogue. I liked Peter, the obligatory ‘cute’ boy (but to whom there is more than meets the eye, naturally). I enjoyed the diversity, and the inclusion of people of varying sexualities, and the clear-eyed, honest look at American life and culture. In fact, this latter aspect was probably my stand-out favourite bit of the whole book, but it’s tied up, too, with my least favourite bit.

I’m fascinated with things like American mega-churches which act, in all ways, like corporations. From my (limited) viewpoint, America seems to be a land where religion can morph into different shapes from its European counterparts, and that it’s probably the only place where an organisation like the Westboro Baptist Church (which the Church of America in this book reminded me of, somewhat) could take seed. Coyle makes great points about commercialism and capitalism and greed and selfishness and the dangers of seeing people as expendable and secondary to profit, and I’m with her on all of these issues. I agree, in short, with the book’s politics. But my main difficulty with the book is this: I never really bought that the Church of America – a mega-corporation, selling everything from clothing to breakfast cereal to salvation – could overtake America so fully, and could convince so many people in this massive, diverse country to follow it, all in the space of three years. No matter how convincing a speaker their leader is, no matter how slick their advertisements are, no matter how frightening a picture of the future they paint, I couldn’t believe that America would be homogenous enough to fall into the Church of America fold so fast. Not in this day and age, at least, this era of questioning and cynicism. I did appreciate that some people didn’t believe, and were never part of the corporate machine behind the Church of America, but its grip still seemed unfeasibly strong. Perhaps, of course, I’ve misread or missed something, or this is going to be explored in the book’s sequel, or indeed I’m just not familiar enough with the American culture upon which Coyle is drawing, and I’m always happy to be corrected – but this is how I read the story.

But back to the excellent stuff. The book starts out in fantastic fashion – Vivian and Harp are at a Rapture’s Eve party, one of many being thrown on the chilly March evening when Pastor Beaton Frick, the leader of the Church of America, has prophesied that the Rapture will take place. This is the day when all those ‘worthy Believers’ will be taken, body and soul, into heaven, and all those found unworthy will be left behind to face perdition. Vivian is not a Believer (even though she wavers, every so often, which makes her feel real and vulnerable and believable), but her parents are.  So, when Viv returns home after the party to find her parents gone, and two holes in the roof of their bedroom, she can come to only one conclusion.

Her parents were right all along. The Rapture has happened, and they’ve been taken.

This means that Vivian, and all the many millions who were not Raptured, are living in an alternate world. What has befallen all the people who have disappeared? Have they been Saved? And what’s going to happen to the rest of humanity?

Together with Harp and Peter (the ‘cute boy’ she meets at the Rapture’s Eve party) Viv sets off on a cross-country trip in search of the truth. It’s a classic American coming of age road-novel, full of sweeping vistas and raising gas prices and taking turns behind the wheel, and the changed face of the country gradually reveals itself. There are sections which lost me completely, including one in which Viv is taken by her grandparents to live with them in New York, because (at 17) she is a minor and cannot be left to fend for herself – but then she simply escapes, with no consequences, and abandons her elderly grandparents to a massive, coast-destroying storm without a second thought. It’s as if the entire section in New York was set up for one purpose – to allow Viv to receive a phone call never meant for her, which sparks her mind off in a new direction. By and large, though, their adventures are interesting and tense, particularly when they start to take their toll on Harp.

The idea of abandonment and fractured families and emotionless disconnection from those people who should be dearest to you is one which is used several times in this book, and to me, this fragmentation (which is well handled) was one of the most important aspects of the story. There are so many good concepts and ideas in the book, but I also had a hard time accepting its conclusion, which seemed a little disjointed and implausible, and where this fragmentation of families comes to a slightly strange crescendo. Having said that, I know the book is setting itself up for a sequel.

For its central idea alone, I will say Vivian Versus the Apocalypse is definitely worth a read. If you’re looking for a YA/road-trip/coming of age book with an entirely different twist and flavour to it, full of diversity and and an excellent female friendship, give this one a go – and then tell me what you thought of the end!



It’s Friday, which means Flash! Friday is going on. I heartily urge you to go on over and take a look, and throw your name in the ring if you can. This week’s writing prompts are ‘Janitor’, and this fine photo:

Coliseum in Rome. CC2,0 photo by Vlad. Image sourced:

Coliseum in Rome. CC2,0 photo by Vlad.
Image sourced:

For some reason, I find myself unable to create a story from these prompts just at the moment. My thoughts are scattered in a million directions, and no matter what I try to do, all the stories I come up with based on these prompts seem old, and dull, and done to death. If my mind was a telephone exchange, all you’d get when you dialled the number for ‘Flash Fiction Inspiration’ would be an engaged tone.

So, I’m going to step away from it, for now. Perhaps, if I’m lucky, I’ll come back to it in an hour, or three, or five, and a story will suggest itself which will seem beautiful, and perfect, and true, and if it does then I’ll write it.

And perhaps (shock to the horror) it won’t.

And as I’ve finally learned? That’s all right. It’s all right not to have inspiration strike you between the eyes every time you see an image prompt. It’s all right not to feel happy with the story you write. It’s all right to choose not to post up work which you’re not sure is representative of you at your best. It’s all right to do your work justice and not share it until it’s ready.

I am a busy person at the moment. It’s all good; I like to be busy, and it can be a lot of fun to just buckle yourself in and hope for the best. There’s some stuff going on which I can’t share yet (though don’t worry, I’ll get to it soon-ish), and it’s all very exciting. Stay tuned…

But, until then, I’m off to try to find ways to focus, and with any luck we’ll have a piece of flash fiction by close of business. In the meantime, what are you going to write today?


Now and Zen

The world outside is frozen solid. Everything is white as far as the eye can see, including the sky. If the trees could shiver, they’d be shivering.

It’s really, really quiet, too. Car tyres are muffled on the frosty roads. Birds are too busy trying to survive to make even the smallest peep. People are mostly indoors, so the usual babble and chatter you’d expect isn’t there. All in all, it’s a good moment to try to remember to be Zen. However, I’m too busy trying not to panic at the thought of going out later and possibly losing my footing on a slippery pavement, or whether we have enough food to last the day.

Yes. I would literally worry about anything.

It's not like I even have anything worth worrying about, like 'What on earth has happened to my hand?' Photo Credit: Zitun via Compfight cc

It’s not like I even have anything worth worrying about, like ‘What on earth has happened to my hand?’
Photo Credit: Zitun via Compfight cc

Thinking of characters and stories and worlds, and incubating them long enough for them to take root and settle into a workable shape and consistency, and then – eventually – writing them down, is a time-, sanity- and heart-consuming thing. It not only takes effort and dedication, but also one important element: internal balance. I mean, it’s hard to write effectively if you’re worried, or stressed, or sick. I’ve been having a bad run of worry, stress and sickness for the past couple of months, and it has really impacted my work. Not only in terms of my ability to put words on a page (though I’ve been battling through regardless), but also my peace of mind, my self-belief, my future planning, my vision of what my career might be.

So. A white world outside the window is a fine reminder that this is all okay. Sometimes, things are quiet. Sometimes, it seems like not a lot is happening when in reality, it’s all going on beneath the surface. It’s a time to realise that not everything needs to happen all at once, all the time, and that a fallow period after a time of busyness is perfectly okay – so long as it doesn’t go on forever. This is one of the reasons why I love living in a country where we have seasons, where we can see winter happening, and where its lessons can be hammered home year after year after year.

Because, yes. I am continually falling into the same fear-spirals, and forgetting how I fought my way out of them the last time. You’d think I’d learn, wouldn’t you?

Going at any creative endeavour with a mind and heart full of pressure and stress is a recipe for disaster. So, I’m going to take a few deep breaths of the cold, frosty air, feel the crunch of snow under my boots, and come back refreshed and full of renewed appreciation for how lucky I am.

And then I’m going to get back to work.