Monthly Archives: April 2015

In Praise of Booksellers

Yesterday, I had to go into Dublin city for the day to attend to some business, but – of course – when I’m in the capital I always make time to visit a bookshop or two. This is partly because Dublin has some gorgeous bookshops, but also because, where I live, buying (or even seeing) books is tough. (Unless you’re standing in my living room, which is wallpapered with the things, but you know, I trust, what I mean). In my sleepy town we have one supermarket which has a small selection of new books, though it’s growing all the time – particularly its kidlit section, which is fantastic – but I have qualms about buying books from supermarkets. Call it once-a-bookseller-always-a-bookseller guilt about margins and profits, if you like, but that’s the reality.

Anyway. So. I’m in Dublin. I’m in the comfortable surroudings of one of my favourite bookshops, a place I’ve known and loved for well over fifteen years. I feel at peace. Blood pressure lowered, heart-rate calm, all that jazz. The scent of paper soothing my senses. The quiet buzz of bookish commerce making me feel right at home. The gut-wrenching reality of only having so much money, and a ‘to-buy’ list as long as my arm, and knowing I can only choose one book. One. So it has to be a good ‘un.

I love this stuff.

Photo Credit: Ric e Ette via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Ric e Ette via Compfight cc

I eventually made my choice, and approached the register to pay for my purchases. (Yes. Purchases. So I bought two books. One wasn’t for me, though, so you can keep your collective wigs on, thanks very much). I happily queued behind a customer who was there with his small daughter, buying books and bookmarks and generally having a fine old time, and when I got to the till the bookseller – who is a lady I’ve often talked to before in this particular bookshop – appraised my choices.

‘Have they read the first book in this series?’ she asked me, holding up the book I’d bought for myself, which is indeed a sequel.

I smiled at her. ‘It’s for me,’ I said. ‘And yes, I have!’

And that started a long, fascinating and fabulous conversation about books, bookshops, writing, book groups, YA and children’s literature (and how good it is right now), King Arthur and how he pops up everywhere, books we’ve recently read which we loved, and ones we didn’t love so much, books which become incredibly successful (sometimes inexplicably), and ended in the bookseller giving me a personal recommendation for a book series she feels I’d love, and which she wants me to check out as soon as possible. I was glad to take her advice because she is, undeniably, a lady wot knows her onions when it comes to books. She’s the kind of bookseller who makes me glad that I, in my heart and soul, am also a bookseller, even though I ‘only’ worked in an academic bookshop where these sorts of conversations with customers weren’t a daily reality (but I treasured them when they did happen). She’s the sort of bookseller who makes shopping for books an absolute joy, and the sort of person with whom I love to be met when I want to make a bookish purchase. Expert in her field, knowledgeable about many genres of literature outside her own, excellent at spotting the sort of book a customer would like and finding just the right story to slot into their life, enthusiastic and happy to talk and full of the joy of reading, she has always made my trips to her shop hugely enjoyable. I don’t know her name, but that doesn’t even matter. We are of one type, she and I.

And she’s not an algorithm, recommending books based on previous internet searches. She’s not a machine which doesn’t understand it when you want a different edition, or a different cover, or when you have a detailed question, or when you simply want to talk about how amazing a book is. She’s a human being with a brain and a mighty aptitude for her field of expertise, a charming person who makes buying books even more pleasurable than it is already, who greets you and chats and makes you feel special and valued – and not just because she’s programmed to. Because she wants to, and she’s doing a job she loves, and she’s damn good at it. She’s one of the reasons why I hope bookshops are never allowed to wither and die, and why I hope, very sincerely, that there will always be enough people shopping for books offline to keep booksellers like this lady in work, encouraging readers and writers alike, championing books and making spot-on recommendations, and just making people’s lives brighter simply by existing. This recent article gave me hope for the future, and I hope the claims it makes are accurate.

I want to thank this bookseller, and all booksellers who love and cherish the work they do, and all bookshops. Just – thanks. For being yourselves. You’ll always have a friend in me.

Why I’m Voting ‘YES’

The world is building up to an overwhelming crescendo again. I know it’s not just me; anyone with any sense of compassion will have been overwhelmed by the news from Nepal in recent days, and by the reality of what’s happening in Baltimore, MD. That’s not to mention all the ongoing crises in the world which will continue to rumble, even when our eyes are turned elsewhere. Not, it sometimes feels, that it really matters whether we’re watching or not – the brutalities of the world seem like so much entertainment, to some people.

So, in an attempt to distract myself from all this negative horror, I want to talk today about something which means a lot to me, and which – to my mind – is a little shaft of light in a darkening world.



In about three weeks’ time, the people of Ireland will be called upon to vote in a Constitutional referendum to decide whether or not Marriage Equality (or Same-Sex Marriage, if you insist) should be made legal in our jurisdiction. The campaigning has been ferocious, and at times vitriolic, and as one would expect in a debate like this, issues which have nothing to do with the central question have been brought up for discussion, distracting from the real matters at hand. Sometimes, this has made me angry, and at other times it has made me glad I live in a democracy where people are entitled and expected to air their views and have them at least listened to, if not agreed with.

I don’t normally make my own political opinions public, and I don’t normally bang on about what way I’m going to vote in any particular election or referendum, but this time I think it’s important that people say which way they’re leaning, and explain why. I will be voting ‘YES’ on May 22nd, and I’m proud to say so. I will be voting in favour of legislating for legal civil marriage for same-sex couples – or, making every citizen of Ireland equal under the law when it comes to being married and having that marriage recognised by the State – and I can’t wait for my chance to exercise my franchise.

There has been a lot of talk in Ireland over the past few weeks about how this vote will affect children, if it’s passed; how it will (apparently) rip children from their mothers’ arms and place them in the households of legally-married gay couples, and how distasteful that would be, and how it will deny every child the ‘right’ to be brought up in a loving home with a mother and a father. It will destroy the fabric of society, we’re told by those on the ‘NO’ side, undermining the legitimacy of marriage itself, forcing religious people to act against their conscience, leading to a future where children are left lost and rootless and families begin to crumble.

It’s all nonsense.

There are already gay couples living peacefully in Ireland, bound legally as civil partners – but these relationships don’t have the same protections under the law or the Constitution as marriage does. There are already families headed by two adult partners of the same gender. There are already children born to, and being lovingly raised by, gay parents. The only difference that this referendum will make, if it’s passed, to the children of gay couples is this: it will make them more protected, more secure under the law, and safer. Currently, if a child is the biological offspring of a lesbian woman in a civil partnership, and if that woman dies, her partner has no legal right to parent the child whom she loves as her own, and whom she has raised as her own. If the women were married, the child would be secure in her family, knowing that nobody can take her from the parent she has known and loved all her life if anything should happen to her biological mother. Currently, if two men are civilly partnered and one of them dies without making a will, his partner (and, possibly, their children) cannot automatically inherit his estate, as would happen with a married couple. It’s as if, sometimes, people can’t imagine children being lovingly raised by two people who happen to be of the same gender, and they can’t imagine how on earth a child could be raised well, and roundly, and with loving support, by anyone other than a woman and a man. They can be. They are being. It’s perfectly possible. What a child needs, most fundamentally, is love, not two differently-gendered parents. If they happen to have a mother and father, great. If they don’t, they’ll be fine – so long as they’re safe and loved.

The notion that every family headed by a married man and woman is ‘happy’, or functional, or loving, or abuse-free, is outdated and naive, but it seems to be a notion that the ‘NO’ side are clinging to. I am lucky; I was raised in a happy family with a set of parents of opposite gender. I am married to a person of opposite gender to myself, and we are happy. But this doesn’t mean that every family with a mother and father is happy, just because the parents are of opposite genders. Children are battered and beaten every day by their mothers. Children are abused by their fathers. Children live in squalor and horror under the veneer of ‘respectability’, and nobody bats an eyelid because their family are ‘good people’. If the people campaigning against this referendum truly cared about children’s welfare, and if that was really their core concern, they’d shut up shop and join the ‘YES’ side, because nothing else makes sense. We are trying, as a country, every day, to protect the children who suffer at the hands of their biological, heterosexual parents – our system isn’t perfect, but we’re working on it. How, then, we could consider not passing a referendum which would give more stability to already happy and functional families – ones headed by same-sex parents – is beyond me.

But this referendum isn’t about children, really. It’s about equality. It’s about this country looking its gay citizens in the eye and saying ‘You and I are equal under the law in all things, and I’m going to vote to make sure your rights are as protected as mine.’ If it’s passed, this referendum won’t force churches to marry gay people in religious ceremonies. It won’t force anyone to do anything against their will. It will make life easier and more stable for hundreds of children, and it will be an acknowledgement that every person has the right to be involved in a loving, committed relationship recognised by their State if they so choose.

I’m voting ‘YES’, and I hope the majority of my fellow citizens will be with me. It won’t save the world, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Brilliant’

In this slim, seemingly simple tale, Irish writer extraordinaire Roddy Doyle has attempted to do something profound – and very important.



There is a lot of talk, in Ireland and elsewhere, that we are now ‘pulling out of’ the recession which has plagued Europe and the world for the past seven years or so. We’re seeing ‘an end to austerity’ and an increase, apparently, in take-home pay and a general improvement in most people’s lives. So they say. I’m not sure how equitable this recovery (if it even exists) is, or has been, and there are some sectors of life in Ireland which got off far more lightly than others. People are still suffering, and mental health is a topic of regular discussion. People are being treated for depression and complications arising from it; anxiety disorders are common. Everyone knows someone, usually someone close, who has struggled and/or who continues to struggle. Nobody seems certain what to do about it, or whether it is every going to end.

One thing is for sure, though: throughout this whole period, when every news bulletin and newspaper and TV talk show and radio opinion piece was focused entirely on the recession, the austerity measures put in place by the government, the taxes and levies which were brought in ‘as emergency measures’ and then never removed, the growing queues of unemployed, and the emigration numbers which seemed to have no upper limit, not very many people stopped to think what effect all this doom and gloom was having on the children who had to live through it. How hard it must be to be a child – particularly a sensitive, inquisitive, knowing child, who is aware of the world and the adults around them – watching the future of their country collapse, and wondering what will become of them down the line? This is the scenario we’re faced with in Brilliant, where Gloria and Rayzer (Raymond), a sister and brother living in West Dublin, find their beloved uncle coming to live in their house because the bank has taken his, and he needs some time to ‘get back on his feet.’ His laughter and sense of fun have gone, and the family (who already have Gloria and Rayzer’s granny living with them, too) soon begins to suffer under the strain. Everyone loves Uncle Ben, of course, but living all squeezed up together is not a lot of fun.

One night, as Gloria and Rayzer eavesdrop on a conversation between their parents and their granny, the idea that Ben has ‘the black dog’ on his back comes up. ‘The black dog has taken Dublin’s funny bone,’ says Granny – and Gloria and Rayzer, being enterprising kids, immediately set out to find the funny bone and steal it back. On the way they rope in their very eccentric neighbour Ernie, who has decided to work as a vampire in order to stave off the worst of the recession’s effects (I can’t help thinking there’s a complex metaphor in there about blood-suckers draining the life out of the country!) and as their quest continues, boys and girls from all over the city, all of whom have loved ones who are suffering because of ‘the black dog’, join in their fight.

For the kids have one secret weapon up their sleeves – a magic word which can destroy the black dog of Depression and send him trotting away from Dublin for good.

This is a very straightforward book – there’s no getting away from that. It began life as a short story, and in some ways it does feel a bit ‘stretched’, as if there’s not enough plot to sustain its length. But that hardly matters when you’re reading dialogue which, at times, made me shake with laughter and set-pieces which are so Irish, so Dublin, that reading this book is as good as taking a trip to my fair capital city. I loved that Doyle made the seagulls of Dublin such heroes in his story, because – to be honest – nobody in Dublin likes the seagulls which seem, at times, to be running the place. The cry of a seagull will always remind me of Dublin, and they are absolutely part of the fabric of the city, but they’re also a huge nuisance. So, to see them having a wonderful role in the denouement of this story was refreshing, and fun. There are landmarks galore in here, and the route the children take is one I know extremely well, so I was there with them in my head as they ran, chasing the black dog through the streets. Even if you don’t know Dublin, or the route they take, there’s a handy map (drawn by Chris Judge, who also did the illustrations) inside the front and back covers of my edition (the hardback) to keep you on track.

Most of this book’s appeal lies in its characters, both animal and human alike, and in the sheer fun of the dialogue. A lot of it is very Irish, and might cause a bit of confusion if you’re not used to it, but in most cases context serves to sort out what’s happening. The plot is uncomplicated, the action is all driven towards driving the black dog out of the city, and the simple power of the book lies in the reality behind it – the fact that we know, as readers, exactly how hard it is, and has been, to live through the past few years, and how many people that black dog has squashed out of existence. The actions of the kids – coming together, and fighting as one – might be the best answer anyone has yet come up with to fighting off the darkness; maybe we adults could do worse than actually listen to them, for once.

Celebrating Books, Authors – and Copyright

There’s so much stuff going on today in the bookish world. It’s World Book Day (unless you’re in the UK and Ireland, where it’s World Book Night instead – yes, I agree it’s confusing), where people give books, and read them in public, and where the lives and work of famous authors – most notably Miguel de Cervantes – are celebrated. It’s wonderful to see books, and writing, and creativity, and storytelling, marked with such joy and enthusiasm, and I love seeing my Twitter timeline fill up with people wishing Shakespeare a happy birthday. It makes me happy that, so many years after the great man’s death, he is remembered and loved – not to mention his work. It underlines, to me, the wonder of books and literacy and stories, and how (much as people may think they’re not important) they’re one of the most vital aspects of human culture we have.

There he is now, keeping an eye on you. Best be reading something! Photo Credit: yumikrum via Compfight cc

There he is now, keeping an eye on you. Best be reading something!
Photo Credit: yumikrum via Compfight cc

Last night, I watched a programme on BBC about travelling the length of the Mekong River, which runs through Tibet, China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Last night’s episode focused on Laos, a country where one in four people is illiterate, and schooling is sporadic due to its expense, as well as many other complex reasons. At one point in the documentary, the presenter and some local people took a mobile library (housed on a boat) to an isolated community, where they were met at the shore by at least a hundred laughing, dancing, clapping children, all of whom were overjoyed to see the books’ arrival. There was music, festivity, drama, and excitement, and then the children had the chance to board the library and choose a book. They then sat around, on rocks and hillocks and tucked into any nook or cranny they could find, and they each read, completely absorbed in the words and the stories they were experiencing. It was one of the most moving things I have ever seen. I can’t overstate how incredible it was to see these children enjoying themselves so much through music, art, drama and literature, things which children in my corner of the world have laid out before them every day without realising how privileged they are.

I already believe in the power of literacy and how it affects the lives of children – who then grow up to become adults, of course, hopefully with their love of the beauty of creativity and culture intact. The programme cemented what I already know, instead of teaching me something new. But it was a truly wonderful piece of television, in any case.

But is creativity important? Should it be?

Today, as well as being World Book Day, is also World Copyright Day. Copyright can be a complex thing; there are people who feel that an author’s/artist’s copyright over their creative work shouldn’t be quite so long – and, to be honest, I’m inclined to agree, particularly when it comes to literary heavyweights like Joyce. Because of copyright restrictions, it was difficult to use Joyce’s work for scholarly purposes until very recently. Having said that, it is one of the only protections the ‘average’ creative has in a world which is already chipping away, steadily, at their precarious income. An author may take twenty years to become established, by which time their ‘backlist’ – the books they’ve written which are still in print, and still selling – may form the majority of their income. I do believe authors and artists should have a right to earn an income (note: I haven’t said ‘a living’, because most don’t come anywhere close, even in the best of times) from their work, and I do believe that copyright should extend the length of an author’s lifetime, so that this money is protected for as long as an author or artist is in need of it.

Maybe you don’t agree. Maybe you feel that if a person is going to be a ‘creative’, following that airy-fairy calling which comes to them from the stars, that they should fund it themselves, or do it purely for the love of it. Well, yes. People who want to create will create whether they’re being paid for it or not,  in the cracks and crannies of their lives, in the spare time they have between all the other commitments they’re living around. But what’s that doing to the idea of ‘art’ itself? Why don’t we want to foster a culture of creativity? Why do we heap such scorn on the heads of those who create, while flocking in our droves to the cinema to take in the latest blockbuster movie? Why do we illegally download TV shows and music, which we want to consume, but for whose creators we have scant regard? Why does the web proliferate with sites where people can download pirated copies of books? We already live in a world where books are seen as disposables, things which should cost pennies and which should be available to us whenever we want them. But who creates the things we consume? Why don’t we see the creative process as having value?

Yesterday, in time (ironically?) for World Book and Copyright Day, a political party based in the UK, which would have been the natural home for many creative types, announced its plans to reduce copyright terms to 14 years for creative work (including books, film, drama, and so on). This means that an author’s copyright would run out well before their death, and would open up scenarios where, during an artist’s lifetime, other parties – such as large corporations, maybe – would have the power to take their idea and turn it into something the artist never intended. Perhaps they’d make a movie out of their book, for instance, which the artist would never have sanctioned if they still had control, or perhaps they’d simply republish the work, maybe with subtle edits or changes which destroy the original artist’s vision – not to mention making money from it. But copyright isn’t always about money: it’s about ownership, and protection, of an idea which belongs – during your lifetime – to you.

95%, or more, of creative people don’t ‘profit’ from their work. They might earn a little, perhaps; enough to keep them going, keep them creating, make it worthwhile for them to invest their time and energy into the work, make it easier to juggle their other commitments in order to fit their creative work in. If we remove one of their only means of earning this small income, we destroy art, and we destroy artists. There are people who become very wealthy through art, of course, but those people are rare. I don’t want to see a world where culture is run by committee, or where art is designed by mega-corporations, and where everything we read or see or hear sounds exactly the same. I fear we’re already heading down that road, and drastically reducing copyright would contribute to this.

Reduce it, certainly. Perhaps allow copyright to span forty years, fifty at the most. This should protect most artists, which will protect our culture and the vibrancy and authenticity of our creative industries. But I tremble at the thought of it being cut away completely, or reduced so drastically as to make it worthless. It’s one of the few aspects of the creative life which offers any protection to those brave enough to try to make something new, and to add to the sum of human culture. Instead of simply consuming mindlessly, and misusing the innocuous-seeming word ‘share’ (which, in our modern world, seems to have more in common with ‘steal’), let’s try to protect our creative industries for the future.

That, to me, is the best way of celebrating World Book and Copyright Day. However you’re marking it, I hope you thoroughly enjoy the words and stories which are thick in the air today.


Fwish fwish! Fwish-fwish!

That’s the sound of me mixing it up around here, just in case you weren’t sure what you were listening to. I’m aware, of course, that this is a Tuesday, and that it has become my habit to blog on Mondays, but yesterday I wasn’t feeling one hundred percent well. So, my blog had to fall by the wayside, just once.

It wasn’t the most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had, but it does give me the chance to use this nifty mixer-upper tool. Fwish! I could get used to this, you know.

Think of me like Zorro. Except female. And short. And prone to toppling over unexpectedly.

Photo Credit: armadillo444 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: armadillo444 via Compfight cc

In fact, actually, don’t think of me as Zorro. That was stupid. Let’s start again.

Right! Hello! How’s your week going so far? Mine’s going pretty fairly well. Now that I’ve recovered somewhat from feeling woeful, that is. I’m writing again – it’s going slowly, but it’s going. I think *crosses everything* that I have the bones of a fairly decent story beginning to form, but in writing you never really know whether your story is going to work until you write it. What might seem shiny and bright and fantastic in the planning stages may turn out to be rickety and rotten underfoot as soon as you put any weight on it. Of course I hope this won’t happen, but (as I never tire of reminding myself) in this game, there are no guarantees.

This is the thrill, and the risk, and the heart-crushing sorrow, of trying to create something from nothing. It’s a feeling I’m all too familiar with. For whatever reason, during this year so far almost everything I’ve started has ended before it was supposed to – in terms of writing, at least. Ideas have sputtered out and stories have whittled away, fading down to an embarrassed throat-clearing noise as the universe reshuffles, hoping nobody noticed the big enormous failure that has just happened. I feel a lot like everything I’ve tried to do this year has been akin to fumbling in a darkened room, where there are scary, nasty (and quite possibly dangerous) things hidden in the murk, lurking beneath dusty sheets. Sometimes discovering these things can be good – once your heart rate returns to normal – and sometimes they can be bad. Sometimes, they can be the death of your tiny storylet, and that’s a dreadful feeling.

So, I’m fully prepared for this new story to go the same way. But I’m also hopeful that it won’t. On the plus side, I think I have mastered one important thing, which is the voice of this tale; once I have that, I think the rest of it will slot together, eventually. Finding the right register for your characters is, for me, a prerequisite to telling a tale – you want a tone which expresses their individuality, hints at their world, seems to ‘fit’ them and their personality, and it’s much harder to do than you’d imagine. Often, the first ‘voice’ you start writing in isn’t the right one; I’ve had this happen more often than I want to remember. Also, once you’ve begun a story in one ‘voice’, it can be really hard to see your way through to writing it in another, and your desperation to get it ‘right’ can sometimes be its undoing. And then sometimes, as with ‘Emmeline’, the voice hits you right away and the story practically tells itself. I’m not expecting that to happen again (I think what happened with ‘Emmeline’ was a once-in-a-lifetime thing), but it would be amazing if I could just keep going long enough to build a firm foundation for this idea, something which grows stronger with every addition instead of more tangled and confused.

Let’s hope for the best.

Fwish! I’m off. Have good Tuesdays, all y’all. Feel good. Try to keep your eyes on the happy stuff, for without it we are all lost. Create something. Give something. Share your brightness with another. That way, maybe there’s a chance for everyone to rise.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Starseeker’

Tim Bowler’s Starseeker, a lot like the music which threads its way through the story, is the sort of novel which lingers, both in the memory and the senses. It’s a beautiful book both in terms of its story and the way it’s written. This isn’t to say there aren’t things about it I don’t entirely love – but I do love most of it with a passion.



The book is the story of Luke Stanton, who lives with his mother Kirsti in a small village in the English countryside. They are mourning the premature death of Luke’s father Matthew a couple of years before, and finding it difficult to work through their own individual senses of grief and loss in order to help one another. Luke, like his late father, is a terrifically gifted musician, in possession of perfect pitch (among other things), and his ability to play the piano like a master is a theme throughout the book. At the outset of the story, he has fallen in with a ‘bad lot’, a bunch of local boys who wish to victimise an older lady living alone in the community. Mrs Little, a woman who rarely leaves her home and who is a stranger to most of the village, has a mysterious and potentially valuable box in her possession, and she has been targeted for burglary by the gang who have co-opted Luke into their midst. To make matters worse, Luke is forced to act as the prime mover in the attack. As well as being a prodigious pianist, he is also a fearless and skilled climber, and the gang need him to climb up Mrs Little’s drainpipes and let them into her house while she’s out.

Luke, for various reasons, has no choice but to comply.

While in Mrs Little’s home, Luke encounters a scared, weeping child locked in an upstairs room. At first he isn’t sure if he’s imagining her, as he’s been hearing the sound of her crying for some time – and in places, and at times, when it would be physically impossible. But this is one of Luke’s strange abilities – he hears. He hears far more than the average person, and it becomes, at times, a scary burden and something which confuses him. Terrified and overcome, he leaves the house empty-handed – which isn’t good enough for Skin, and Speed, and Daz, the other members of the gang. They force him to return at a later date, threatening him with harm if he refuses.

When Luke breaks into Mrs Little’s home again, he thinks he has got away with it. He tries to lie low, and to spend long enough inside to convince Skin that he has searched thoroughly for the box he so desperately wants, but things don’t work out quite as he plans. Mrs Little encounters him – but instead of calling the police, she asks him to do something very strange, and completely unexpected. She wants Luke to help her, and to help her granddaughter Natalie, the child he’d glimpsed on his previous burglary attempt. She doesn’t specify how, or why, and Luke is overwhelmed by the responsibility – not to mention the fear of knowing he hasn’t done what Skin wanted, and that he’s facing severe repercussions for once more coming out of the house without the box.

As the situation with Skin and the gang comes to a horrifying head, so too does the truth behind Mrs Little and her granddaughter. Why is the child so frightened? And what on earth can Luke do to help? On top of these dramatic developments, Luke is dealing with school, and the upcoming concert at which he is expected to perform – his solo recital is set to be the night’s highlight. Then, there’s Miranda, the girl who has asked him to help with her performance at the same concert, not to mention his mother’s growing closeness to Roger Gilmore, a local artist, and – overshadowing and underpinning all of it – his aching grief for his lost father, and the sounds which are threatening to take over his mind completely.

As well as a wonderful plot and fantastic characters, Tim Bowler writes so beautifully that you want to linger over every page. His descriptions of Luke’s music, his visions, the sounds he can hear, the synaesthesia which suffuses his understanding of music (where each note has not only a tone, but a colour, in Luke’s mind), the depth of love and understanding between him and his father, who is a vibrant and vital force in this book despite it all taking place after his death – all of this is a marvel, as are the subtle references to The Tempest which crop up from time to time. There are parts I didn’t love with quite the same level of intensity, centring on Natalie’s story and her relationship with the brittle, suffering and deeply sad Mrs Little. Without giving anything away, I wasn’t quite sure why this story had to exist the way it does. There’s enough poignancy and power in Mrs Little’s story by itself, without needing to bring in her granddaughter and her terrible, painful burden, in my opinion. This isn’t to say that the story as Bowler has written it doesn’t ‘work’; I simply felt it wasn’t necessary, strictly.

But that is my only complaint.

All the things I normally love in a book are here, in spades: great dialogue, fantastic characterisation, emotional honesty, internal logic, love and family and loyalty and bravery beyond measure, friendship and loss and a deep understanding of the beauty which binds the world together, despite all the horror and sorrow that is piled on top of it. This story reminds me how, if we scrape away at the darkness which can seem overwhelming in daily life, the bright wonder and perfection of self-sacrificial, unselfish love is there like a bedrock beneath it all. This book sings, in every sense. It’s wonderful. Go out and get a copy, this minute!

A Slightly Feminist-y Rant

Recently, a woman I hugely admire posted the following Tweet.

Also recently, another woman – not known to me personally – announced that she was taking a break from Twitter because she had received a barrage of death threats, from men, simply due to a rumour that she was slated to take over presenting a TV show.

A TV show.

I don’t normally get too deeply into my feelings about feminism, and things like that, on this blog (I tend to keep that sort of stuff for Tumblr), but there are times you just have to say: enough. This is enough. In fact, it’s more than enough.

A year ago yesterday, the girls of Chibok were taken from their families and loved ones by a group claiming religion as a valid reason for their abduction. Nobody really knows what has happened to the majority of these girls and young women, but one can guess that they have suffered some sort of sexual violence, or been married off against their will. They may have even been sold into slavery. Nobody seems to care.



Earlier this week, a woman in my own country waived her right to anonymity in order to name the abuser who destroyed her childhood – a man who was her mother’s partner, but who made her suffer unspeakably for a very long time.

Another woman, again in Ireland, who took a high-profile case against her own father for years of abuse suffered at his hands (and who went back to court to argue for a more severe sentence when the original one handed down was decried nationally as a disgrace) had a pipe bomb placed beneath her car. Luckily she, her husband and her family survived without injury.

I could go on.

Why is this happening? Why do things like GamerGate happen, where women who have the temerity to work in a male-oriented environment become objects of vitriol by certain men, who feel entitled to threaten their personal safety and sexual autonomy to the point where these women have to leave their homes and uproot their families? Why is sexual violence bandied about online as a threat whenever a woman dares to have an opinion? Why don’t the people responsible for this sort of hate speech (because it is ‘hate’ speech, not ‘free’ speech) understand, or care, that their words cause fear and pain and disruption? I sometimes wonder whether the people responsible for this sort of threatening language genuinely don’t see it as ‘serious’; perhaps they view it as being no more realistic than threatening to smash someone’s head in during a pub brawl, where both parties know it’s simply ‘big talk’. Well, it’s not just harmless blather. It’s causing real pain, and real fear, and achieving nothing.

I don’t know. I just know I’m sick of it.

Deeply misogynistic, troublingly sexual threats are made against women in the public eye every day. Men might suffer people disagreeing with their point of view, or being called an idiot or all manner of offensive or upsetting names (and I’m not saying this is right, either) if they put forth an unpopular viewpoint online, but it is overwhelmingly women who suffer death threats, and whose personal safety is jeopardised, and whose privacy is violated. This is not right. It shouldn’t be acceptable. People are fighting back, and spending five minutes on the Everyday Sexism Twitter feed will illustrate that more than handsomely.

But sometimes I wonder whether any of it is working. Sometimes I wonder whether the men and women who stand up for equality between the sexes are actually being listened to. Does anyone remember the threats made against the actor Emma Watson last year when she launched the UN’s equality campaign, HeForShe? I do. Threats were made to ‘doxx’ her (post her personal information, like her address and telephone number, online, a common tactic against women in the public eye) and leak naked photographs of her. This sort of violation has happened to other famous women, for no reason besides – apparently – the fact that they are women, who are deemed attractive, and hence seen as ‘public property’.

I just don’t know how to wrap my head around a world like this.

I hope we do, one day, see an end to a way of thinking which assesses a woman’s beauty before her ability to do a job. I hope we see a world wherein a woman can declare her intention to run for President of her country without anyone feeling the need to comment on her unsuitability because she is a grandmother. I hope we live to see a world where women are seen as people, and not just pretty objects to be looked at. I hope I, personally, live to see a world where women are neither deified as ‘perfect goddesses’ by virtue of their roles as mothers or potential mothers nor reduced to the level of an animal if they dare to express their sexuality, or own their power, or live up to their potential. I want a world where women can sit, in equal numbers to men, in boardrooms and houses of Parliament and courts of justice in every country, and where their words will be listened to and considered with the same respect that would be offered to a man. I don’t want any more women to be able to share anecdotes of oppression from the workplace, of being ignored at meetings or having men take credit for their ideas or having implications made that their jobs are dependent on them staying single, or not having children. I want to see a world where women, all women, have choices, and where those choices are respected – and where, when criticism is levelled at them, it is levelled because of something they have said, or done, or stood for, not simply because they’re female, and where that criticism is respectful and refrains from sexual threat.

I want to see a world where a baby girl is welcomed with as much joy as a baby boy. I want to see a world where a pregnant woman does not weep with disappointment if her unborn baby is female, and I want to see a world where women are not pressured by their families and society to abort their female babies because they are seen as ‘a burden’ or ‘less honourable’. I want a world where girls are not forced into marriage while they are still children. I want to see a world where no woman is killed or oppressed for doing something which would not cause an eyelid to flicker if she were a man. I want men to stand with women, and to resist misogyny and sexual violence wherever they encounter it, and I want women to stand with men, resisting attempts to belittle them because of their gender – because that happens, too.

I want women to stand with other women, and not tear one another down in an attempt to gain traction with, or acceptance by, a man – or, indeed, for any reason.

I want a lot, I know. What I want more than anything is the courage to make a stand in my own life to bring these things about, in tiny increments, in everything I do. Perhaps that, I can achieve.

Whistlestop Weekend


What a weekend that was.

Over the past three days, I’ve travelled hundreds of miles, met my brand-new baby cousin, attended a fundraiser for the Irish Cancer Society (which involved several friends having their heads shaved/chests waxed/hair dyed various colours, and which can still be supported here for a short while), and tried to catch up with as many friends and family as possible all in a very tight space. It was fantastic, and just what I needed, and I enjoyed every second.

But, whoa. Now I have to turn around and function, for five whole days in a row? Sheesh.

If anyone wants me, I'll be on the couch... Photo Credit: abbamouse via Compfight cc

If anyone wants me, I’ll be on the couch…
Photo Credit: abbamouse via Compfight cc

The good news is, I made a substantial start into a new WiP last week, mostly on a whim. It came out of my ‘cataloguing’ urge, which I mentioned the other day, and I was so overwhelmed with enthusiasm for one particular idea that I thought I may as well just start writing it. Now, what may well happen is that it stutters to a halt again in another few days – but perhaps it won’t.

And the important thing is, I enjoyed writing it. I’m only about 5,000 words in, but I’ve already begun to create a world with its own systems and class structures and economy, and a family who struggle with money and ill-health and hard work, and a curious hero who wants to step out from under his big brother’s shadow, and a brave heroine with her own family to support who falls foul of a too-tempting opportunity. Part of the exhilaration of this point in a project is discovering what sort of ‘voice’ to use – I had started this WiP in an entirely different sort of voice, using a dramatic and tense omniscient narrative style, only to find after a chapter that it wasn’t working very well. It was making things seem leaden and dull, when what I wanted was for there to be a light, sparky, almost cheeky feel to the tale, as befits my curious hero. So, I started again with that in mind, and from the very first scene – when the older brother boots the younger out of bed long before dawn in order to begin their day’s work – there’s more humour and dynamism and three-dimensionality to their relationship, their dialogue, and the story.

I still might find myself beginning from scratch. This is always a possibility. But gradually I’m trying to understand that beginning again, and again, and again, isn’t a sign of weakness in writing. It’s a sign of strength, and a developing sense of quality control. If I know something isn’t ‘right’, or isn’t working, then the only responsible thing to do is reconsider, and if that means starting again then so be it. Sometimes, a story will be at the back of your mind, gradually taking shape, but the images and ideas that dance in front of your eyeballs and come sizzling down your fingers are slightly less refined and complete than the larger story arc itself. Enthusiasm has a lot to do with this, as does inexperience, but neither of these are bad things. They can lead to some wondrous and unexpected connections and plot developments.

They can also lead to false starts and frustrated re-writes, but that’s all part of the fun. Right?

Not including The Eye of the North, which is at an advanced stage in development, I have ten ideas (some partially written, some existing only in fragmentary form, and at least one of which has been drafted, but which will in all likelihood never see the light of day), and sometimes, when I get panicked that I will never write another good word and that my only novel is behind me (and believe me, these days happen with paralysing frequency), I remember that I have these ideas, queuing, waiting for their time to ripen and be written. Cataloguing them, as I did during last week, really helped me to focus, and to see that the ideas are all quite different, not just in content but in how I imagine them on a page (for it’s important to always have an ‘end product’ in mind, in order to keep yourself motivated if nothing else). Some are long chapter books for 8+ readers, and some are shorter works which I can imagine as highly illustrated stories for slightly younger readers, and some have a historical focus, and some are entirely fantastical, and some have magic in them and some don’t. It’s really easy to convince yourself that you’re not having good, or any, ideas, and that if you are having some that they’re stupid, and it’s really important to vanquish that sort of mindset as early into your writing career as you can. Writing lists helps me; maybe something else will help you. It’s up to each writer to find their own path through the tangled forest which chokes out all the life and strength from their fictional worlds. None of the ideas on my list may ever be completed, but even if they’re never written, I know one thing: They’re not stupid.

And another thing: I’m going to give them all the best fighting chance I can.

So, off I go, into the unknown. It’s a new week, and time to make the most of every second of writing time I can get. If you’re joining me on the path, good luck and happy travels!

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Black Book of Secrets’

The Black Book of Secrets, F.E. Higgins’ debut novel (first published in 2007 by Macmillan Children’s Books) is a strange beast. It’s one of those books which grips the reader so hard at the start that you read on in a frenzy, desperate to find out what happens – but then, things sort of lose their momentum three-quarters of the way through. This is a real shame, because the book is so richly imagined and written – Higgins’ style reminded me of Frances Hardinge’s, in several places, and it’s unsurprising that they share a publisher – but for all that, I found myself vaguely disappointed with it, overall.



There’s a lot to love about the book’s opening. We meet Ludlow Fitch, a street urchin who lives with the most horrendous ‘Ma’ and ‘Pa’ imaginable, gin-fiends who think nothing of attempting to sell their son’s teeth (ripped unwillingly from his head!) to fund their drinking habits. Ludlow is accosted by his parents, dragged into a cellar, and faced with a terrifying ‘dentist’ bearing a large pliers, who is ready to relieve him of his chewing equipment – until, of course, he bravely fights his way to freedom, desperately clinging to the side of a passing stagecoach as it leaves the City in which he has lived his whole, miserable life. The coach brings him to the town of Pagus Parvus, where he fortuitously meets a mysterious man named Joe Zabbidou (the names of the characters and places in this book are a delicious, word-lovers’ marvel), and he soon falls under Zabbidou’s wing, becoming his assistant.

But what, exactly, does Zabbidou do? (Sorry – I couldn’t resist. Zabbidou-do-do!)

Ahem. Well, it appears that Joe Zabbidou makes his ‘living’ (if you can call it that) by buying people’s secrets. He is a Secret Pawnbroker, which is to say not a pawnbroker whose shop is hard to find, but a pawnbroker who pays good money for the deepest, darkest shreds of guilt in every human conscience. He asks people to tell him their secrets, and then Ludlow writes them down in the eponymous Black Book. What for? We don’t know. Where does he get the money to pay for all these secrets? We have to wait (a long time) to find out. How does a half-literate Ludlow suddenly become Zabbidou’s scribe, faithfully and quickly transcribing everything he hears? Er… well. Next question!

And this is the problem – or, one of them – with the book; too many unanswered questions. There’s a nifty conceit behind the story, which is this: Higgins inserts herself into her own novel, pretending to be a person who came across the fragmentary remains of Ludlow Fitch’s memoirs (she does, in all fairness, say that she corrected Ludlow’s dreadful spelling throughout, but I still don’t think this explains his ability to write so accurately), filling in the gaps with her own imagination to tell his and Joe Zabbidou’s story, but I wondered if this was necessary. We’re left wondering why Ludlow wrote his memoirs, for what purpose, why they ended up in a hollow wooden leg (the significance of which isn’t explained, but there is a sequel to this book, so it may well appear there), and what on earth made him so attractive as an apprentice to Joe Zabbidou. For one of the things I didn’t enjoy about this book was the fact that I didn’t have strong feelings, either way, about Ludlow himself. He’s an observer throughout, who – at least, to my mind – could have been lifted out of the plot without any discernible effect. He doesn’t do much (besides his breathtaking, and brilliant, escape at the beginning), and he sounds like an elderly Dickensian character throughout. Having said that, the language is fantastic, and the imagery is memorable, and the rhythm of the sentences is perfect, and the dialogue is sharp and witty, and I couldn’t fault the way this book was written – it gladdened my word-loving heart.

But, at one point, Ludlow makes an observation that he, Zabbidou and Polly (the maid to the local landlord-cum-oppressor, the baddie of the piece, Jeremiah Ratchet) were simply sitting at home, waiting for something to happen. That’s how I felt, at times, reading this book. Zabbidou was the hero, around whom the action was centred; Ludlow, our narrator and focus, was sidelined within his own story. The explanation at the end was comprehensive, certainly, and things fell into place, but I was still left with a feeling of ‘is that it?’

F.E. Higgins is certainly a great writer. I loved the way this book was written, and the world it created. I loved the descriptions of the City and Pagus Parvus, the houses and the foodstuffs and the clothes and the cobbles in the streets. I loved the details lifted from history – the Resurrectionists, the suspicion about where the meat in your pies was coming from, the fear of being buried alive – and I even liked the overall point behind the plot, that of the ineluctability of fate itself and how the smallest decision, or the smallest character, can be an instrument of Destiny. But because I couldn’t warm to Ludlow (he didn’t give me a lot to warm to), and the plot was somewhat meandering, and the religious symbolism was a little overdone, I think this book would be a middle-ranker, for me. Certainly, it’s worth reading for the richness of the language alone, and it’s a masterclass in subtle but effective description – but I can’t help feeling it could have been more. I’ve read synopses of Higgins’ newer series, The Phenomenals, which sounds, well, phenomenal, and so I think I might be inclined to try those next. Certainly, I don’t think the sequels to The Black Book of Secrets are for me, but I haven’t given up hope yet!

Flash! Friday – ‘Checking In’

Image: The Beggar. CC 2.0 photo by Image_Michel. Image sourced:

Image: The Beggar. CC 2.0 photo by Foto_Michel.
Image sourced:

Checking In

I settle, cross-legged, on the pavement, my sleeping bag furled beneath me. I hold out my empty cup, trying to remember coffee. I run my dry tongue over my film-coated teeth.

But, I remember: I chose this. There’s no going back.

They clip-clop past me in their heels and polished brogues, with their suits and their pretence. I feel like sticking my leg out and tripping someone, just to see. Just to see if they’d see me, then.

But I’ve worked hard to be invisible.

She stops unexpectedly. Smiling. Tall. Expensively slim. She smells good. I don’t know her, yet I know. How has she found me?

‘It’s time, Agent,’ she says, crouching.

‘Pardon, love?’

Her smile tightens. ‘Enough. You’ve been recalled to active duty. Report to Control by oh-eight-hundred, tomorrow.’

I give her the full benefit of my teeth. ‘Dunno what you’re on about, darlin’.’

She says nothing. Her gaze skewers me.

‘But I left,’ I tell her, my false grin dying.

‘Nobody ever leaves the Service,’ she replies, not unsympathetically. Then, she wrinkles her nose. ‘And do something about that smell, won’t you? Decorum.’

As she walks away, I gaze into my still-empty cup, and sigh. I suppose a small advance would have been too much to ask?


This week’s Flash! Friday challenge was to create a mini-tale from the prompt image, above, which also had to include a spy. Well, I included two, even if one was off-duty (though, as the story asks, is one ever off-duty if one is a spy? Anyway). I wrestled with this piece of flash, just a bit, and I’m glad to see that I beat it into submission, even if it’s a bit of fluff, really, which doesn’t say very much. At least, dear readers, I wrote it, and for that alone I’m glad. By the by, have you ever thought about entering a Flash! Friday challenge? Well, if you never have, this might be the week. There’s a special prize on offer today – as well as being in with a chance of winning, you might also win one of two Golden Tickets to take part in the next FlashDogs Anthology. I already have one, so you’d be joining me and a host of other wonderful folk in a great celebration of all things flash, and indeed, fiction. Give it a go.

The weekend is nearly here, and I hope a good one awaits you all. May it be wordy and bright!