Friday, 14 December 2012

EARLY REVIEW FOR THE NIGHT ITSELF

Hi Everyone - happy Friday!

Yes, yes, I'm back already - here to direct you to the guest post that I wrote for the lovely Lucy Coat's Scribble City Central blog, in which I discuss the mythical Japanese creatures known as Yokai, and go into my inspiration for The Name of the Blade Trilogy.

In addition, Lucy - who cunningly charmed a PDF of the as yet unproofread book out of my publisher - gives The Night Itself its very first review! And says lovely, lovely things about that make me want to do cartwheels.

Check it out now!

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

NOBODY WANTS TO READ THIS...

Hi everyone - happy Tuesday to you all. Today I'm writing a post that I'm pretty sure no one is going to want to read, but I've been wrestling with it for the past couple of weeks so...here goes.

I go through different phases with my blogging. Sometimes I have so much to say that it's a struggle to hold myself back to two posts a week. Sometimes I get a great idea and come up with one really decent post in a week and then find the tank empty - and thank heavens for Retro-Thursday/Tuesday! And sometimes - more rarely - I just struggle to come up with any time or attention for the blog at all. When that happens I know that the blog suffers and feel horribly guilty about it.

I've been going through one of those latter phases for about a fortnight now. It's been a fight to come up with interesting blog topics, but even when people on Twitter helped me out and made suggestions or asked questions, I didn't seem to be able to make anything substantial from them. Right now, just writing this, I'm grumbling and moaning as if I was back in school trying to come up with an answer for a particularly tricky exam question. It's not flowing, and I'm not having fun.

Maybe it's because I'm starting Book #3 of The Name of the Blade and there's a lot of anxiety and stress in my head. Maybe it's because things are going on with my dad at the moment - he's going into hospital for a heart operation this week - and I need to be there for him and my mum. Maybe it's just because everything's dark and cold and some instinctive part of me wants to hibernate.

In the past I've struggled through these dry periods, posting as usual, and trying not to face the fact that the quality of the blog has dropped. But this time I don't want to do that. As I've said above, it makes me feel guilty, and then that takes what little fun is left out of the process. So I've decided to try something different.

A blog hiatus. A proper one. Not a one week break from the blog while I'm on a deadline or on holiday, like I've done before, but a temporary stop in blogging activity which I think is going to carry me through Christmas and up to the New Year.

I'll still pop my head above the parapet and post if something important occurs to me to say. I'll update you if I get any exciting news. But other than that I'll be giving the blog a complete rest, and the regular posting schedule will not be followed.

I'm hoping that if I do this, by the time the 1st of January rolls around, I will have a whole cauldron full of ideas bubbling at the back of my brain, and I'll feel rested and refreshed enough to do those ideas - and my Dear Readers - justice.

So for now, I'll wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and offer my best wishes for the most wonderful New Year. Read you later, guys,

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

HEADACHE HORROR

I'm so sorry, my lovelies - but I've woken up today with one of my (thankfully rare) sick headaches.

These are horrible in themselves, but it doesn't take much to turn a headache into a migraine, and those are not only agonisingly painful but basically knock me out for up to 24 hours.

Staring at this screen, even with my laptop on the very lowest brightness setting, is driving metaphorical iron spikes right into my corneas. So I've literally just logged on to apologise for not being able to write you your regularly scheduled post today.

Take care, everyone. Read you on Thursday. xx

Thursday, 29 November 2012

RETROTHURSDAY: BEAUTIFUL CORPSES

Hello and Happy Thursday, my lovelies. Welcome to Retro-Thursday, when I retrieve an older post from my archives in the hope that you may enjoy re-reading it, or may even have missed it the first time around. Given the way that cover trends have shifted over the twelve months since I wrote this, I thought it would be particularly interesting.

Retro-Thursday: BEAUTIFUL CORPSES

Lately I've been thinking about the discussion that's going on in the YA community with regard to 'dead girl' covers.
For anyone reading this who may have sexual assault triggers (or if you're under sixteen), it might be a good idea to either skip today's post or get someone else that you trust to read it first to make sure you'll be all right with it. I really want to talk about this, but I don't want to hurt or upset anyone. OK? *Virtual Hugs To All*

Dead girl covers are the glamorous images of young women in sexy dresses (because girls in trousers, or jeans, or a nice warm jumper, don't really have the same impact) sprawled out (on grass or flowers, in a river or the sea, sometimes floating on a cloud or in darkness) either with their eyes closed or staring vacantly in such a way that you can't work out whether they've just finished having sex, or just died, or both.

There's been a low-level buzz about this for a while, but the real conversation about whether these images were OK started here, on Rachel Stark's rather wonderful blog (where she provides a whole raft of examples). It was taken up by reknowned literary agent Kristin Nelson, here.

I was happy to see this debate taking place, because it's been something that my writing group (several of whom are YA writers) have been feeling queasy about for...years, actually. Supposedly these books are aimed at young women, but the way that the models are dressed and posed smacks strongly of something called The Male Gaze, which is where the cameraman or woman makes the assumption that all (important) viewers are heterosexual males and focuses on portraying what they shoot in a way that appeals strongly to a heterosexual male perspective.

As a result, I feel as if these covers speak less about what young women are interested in, and more about what the world itself is interested in - ie, images of young women in which the women are passive and sexualised.

You just don't see images of young men like this in the mainstream media, with barely any clothes on, airbrushed limbs carelessly sprawled across the ground, hair trailing gently around their faces, and a dreamy/dead look in their eyes. Images of men on covers (and in the general media) are much, much more likely to be active and even heroic. Boys or men will be found standing, leaping, climbing, holding weapons, reaching out. Their faces will be filled with emotion. If they aren't looking directly into camera their eyes will be focused on some distant goal that only they can see, with a look of stern concentration. For some strange reason, we don't really find a man attractive if he looks vacant or possibly dead.

But having read and written a few mini-rants on the topic, my writing group and I moved onto other things. I don't have any dead girl covers as yet myself, and without really thinking about it I can state that there are few to none on my own shelves. Whether that's due to the content of books with these sorts of covers generally not appealing to me, or because I'm unconsciously avoiding books with covers that I find disturbing (and heck, why not?), I don't know. In either case, as worrying as I found this trend, I didn't feel that I had much to add to the conversation that was taking place about it.

Then last week Rachel posted again, talking about how some commentors had defended the fascination with the glamorised, sexy corpses of young women by reminding us that this is a trope that stretches back a long, long way. Back to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. It's a fairytale archetype, they said - the heroine undergoes a spiritual or even a physical death and arises changed and transformed.

Rachel's response to this is great - she points out that just because the trend for beautiful corpses has been going on for a long time, even back to fairytale time, that doesn't mean it's healthy. It just means it's deep-seated.

But seeing the current deluge of dead girl images related to sleeping princess fairytales made a lightbulb pop up above my head. I think what the people talking about this don't realise is that the sleeping heroines they brought into the discussion are rape victims.

I can practically feel readers sucking in a horrified breath as I type this. I know that's not the common conception of these beloved, Disneyfied princesses. And I know that when parents read Snow White or Sleeping Beauty to their daughters before bedtime, they're imparting what they feel are beautiful stories of true love conquering all. After all, waking a princess from a terrible spell with 'true love's kiss' has become a trope in itself by now.

That is not what those stories were originally about. If you read the earliest versions of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White - the versions you find in Italo Calvino's Italian Fairytales, the versions which had not yet undergone the benign censoring hand of Grimm and Anderson and the Victorian Era, you find stories in which true love's kiss has nothing to do with the awakening of the poor, unconscious girl lying in the castle or in the crystal case.

What really happens is that a travelling prince, in the course of his adventures, comes across an apparently sleeping young woman who is unable to defend herself, and rapes her. Then he goes on his merry way. About nine months later, the girl gives birth to a child, and this experience (not surprisingly) finally wakes her from her slumber. And then (the part which always makes me feel the most squinky) the girl is so grateful for having finally escaped the curse that she goes after the travelling prince, thanks him very much for his random sexual assault, and ends up getting married to him.

This represents a fairly strong and very dark male fantasy - that of the unresisting victim. A girl who can't fight or struggle because she is incapacitated. A girl who, although unable to offer any kind of consent to sexual activity, of course actually wants it. A girl who will even thank you for it later on. So why not go ahead and, as the original fairytale text puts it 'enjoy [your]self thoroughly'?

Time may have smoothed the rough edges of our fairytales, removed the sex and replaced it with a sweet kiss, but it says a lot about all of us that hundreds of years later we're still telling those stories to our daughters. As a folklore enthusiast I can list dozens of fairytales and folk stories which have completely disappeared off the radar and which no child today would recognise. But somehow the image of the sleeping princess - the dead girl - still endures.

Why is that, do you think?

Recently there was a rape case in the U.S. where a young women who was out having fun got extremely drunk and called a taxi to take her home. She was unable to get out of the taxi on her own and the driver was worried about her, so he called the police and two officers came and took the girl out of the taxi and got her into her apartment. They then sexually assaulted her. When she woke up and realised what had happened, she reported it. But even though it was shown that the two police officers had lied about their whereabouts during the time they were in her apartment, and that they HAD both had sex with a girl who was so drunk that she was incapable of even getting out of a taxi on her own, they weren't convicted of anything. The jurors apparently believed that any girl who allowed herself to be incapacitated to that extent was 'asking for it'.

When you've thought about that for a little bit, go look at those beautiful images of dead/unconscious girls in thin dresses, with their trailing hair, sprawled limbs and closed or empty eyes, again. Somehow they've stopped being a little disturbing now haven't they?

They're very disturbing indeed.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

THE NEXT BIG THING

Hello and Happy Tuesday my lovelies! Today I'm taking part in a meme (I know, right?! It might actually be my first, unless Roadtrip Wednesday counts) called The Next Big Thing, whereby writers tag each other to answer certain questions about whatever their newest project is - and then tag still more writers to take part.

I was tagged by the absolutely delightful Erin Bow, who talks about her Next Big Thing, Sorrow's Knot (which sounds so luciously creepy and beautiful I can't even stand it) right here.

I, in my turn, am tagging lovely writer friends R.J Anderson (author of KNIFE, SWIFT, ULTRAVIOLET and the upcoming QUICKSILVER) and Elizabeth May (the lady whose beautiful photograph and face are on the cover of FrostFire) whose first book THE FALCONER is coming out next year. These guys will be posting their own Next Big Things either this or next week, so check their blogs out.

NOTE: I would have tagged more writers for this if I could, but practically everyone I approached had either *already* taken part or *couldn't* take part for excellent reasons. As it is, R.J. has actually already been tagged by Erin in the same post that tagged me. We decided to let it slide, since I was about to break down and cry all over Twitter. 

What’s the working title for your book?

The fact that I can finally talk about this now makes me so happy and giggly. Yay! It's The Name of the Blade trilogy, and Book One is titled The Night Itself. 

A short synopsis?

When Mio steals the katana – her family's priceless sword – she only wants to liven up her fancy-dress costume. But the katana is more than some dusty heirloom, and her actions unleash an ancient and unspeakable evil. Soon the monsters of mythical Japan are stalking the streets of 21st century London, searching for her and the sword. Only the appearance of a mysterious warrior boy, Shinobu, saves Mio from death. Now Mio knows that if she cannot learn to control the katana's legendary powers, she will lose not only her own life ... but the love of a lifetime.

Where did the idea for this book come from?

The first spark of the idea was a gift from a friend who is in my writer's group. She posted the Robert Graves poem 'The Bedpost' to our online forum as part of a discussion we were all having. Now, the poem is about this legendary hero and warrior who is enchanted by an evil witch, and ends up trapped in a post of wood - the bedpost of a young girl's bed, in fact. His only chance to break the spell and gain his freedom is to whisper stories to the young woman and get her to fall in love with him. But she's only interested in bloodthirsty tales of battle and adventure, and so he remains trapped in the post.

Straight away I felt that someone needed to take this story on and give it a more satisfactory ending! But I thought that if my hero was going to be trapped in an inanimate object, it ought to be something a bit more interesting - and mobile - than a post of wood. Since he was a warrior, my brain immediately leapt to the idea of a shield or an axe or - a sword. A Japanese sword! And my hero would be a hero from ancient Japan, which would give me a chance to utilise all the wonderful mythology and folklore which I had read about during my research for Shadows on the Moon, but which I never used in that book.

I knew that with so much magic and so many mythical creatures flying about, I would need a realistic setting and a very down to earth, ordinary main character in order to keep the story feeling grounded and real, and the fantastical elements feeling strange and scary. And at that point my brain just seemed to explode with all these ideas and I began to realise that there was more story here than I could possibly tell in a single book, and that for the first time I was actually looking at a series. 

What genre does your book fall under?

It is dark urban fantasy for young adults. 

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

The actress who looks most like my idea of Mio Yamato, my heroine, is Horikita Maki. She's a Japanese actress who is more or less unknown here in the west:


For Shinobu, I would pick the actor Kaneshiro Takeshi, who is slightly better known internationally, having starred in The House of Flying Daggers and The Warlords:


Truth to tell, Kaneshiro-san is too old to play the role of teenage Shinobu now, but in my head, that is the face I see when I think of my character.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am represented by Nancy Miles of the Miles Stott Children's Literary Agency, and the book will be commercially published in the UK by Walker Books in July of 2013. 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

An astonishingly short time, for me - just under six months. That's the fastest I've ever written anything. The universe made me pay that time back in other ways, though! The first draft of the second book (which I've just finished and turned in) took over a year. 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The books that most immediately spring to mind are The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare. Just like The Mortal Instruments, The Name of the Blade is urban fantasy with a really strong sense of setting (in TMI it's New York, in TNotB it's London). In both series there's a large cast of diverse characters, and a focus on fast paced adventure and thrill-ride fight scenes. I've also done my best to create a central love story which is as achingly romantic as the relationship of Jace and Clary in TMI, although Mio and Shinobu's connection can best be described as... unique. *Evil laughter* 

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I've already talked about the initial inspiration, which came from several different places. But I think the underlying motivation came from the books I was reading at the time. I had just finished a draft of FrostFire - it had taken me nearly sixteen months to get it to a publishable state, including masses of re-writes with my editor - and it had turned out to be the most dark and emotional of my high fantasy novels. Frankly, I needed a break. Some friends of mine - again, from my writer's group! - took me on a mega-book-buying spree. It was insane; they just kept shoving books at me and I just kept buying them. I had a job fitting all the bags on the train, let alone carrying them home from the station. Inevitably I ended up with lots and lots of urban fantasy simply because that was one of the most common things on the shelves of the bookshop. I'd read the plenty of urban fantasy fiction before that, but suddenly I had a massive collection of the most recent, cutting edge YA stuff right in my hands.

So I started reading. And some of this urban fantasy was just brilliant. It made my heart race and my brain light up and my soul sing. I loved it. But equally some of it was DIRE. So bad that I couldn't believe that anyone, let alone experienced publishing professionals, had thought this was worth the paper it was printed on. Now, as most writers will tell you, that point - the point where you're diving into a genre and you're starting to see all the patterns and all the tropes and all the cliches and all the overused ideas and under-exploited potential, where you've read the best of the best and the worst of the worst - that's the liminal space where your own imagination starts to light up. You start to ask yourself 'How would *I* have dealt with that plotline?' or think 'I would love to do my own take on a situation like that!' and finally 'Why hasn't anyone written THAT in a book yet? It would be brilliant!'

All those questions lie fallow in the back of your brain, just waiting for the right story to come along and bring them to life. So I was basically inspired to write an urban fantasy by reading urban fantasy. Which is often the way, I think.

What else about the book might pique a reader’s interest?

Well, if anyone else is as burned out as I am on books dealing with western mythos - angels and demons, werewolves and vampires, fairies, elves, mermaids, witches oh my! - but still wants breathless fight scenes, epic adventure and swoony romance, I think they will be interested in The Night Itself. And as a bonus, this will be my first published story where I get to exercise my sense of humour on the page - which I've enjoyed more than I can say - so if my blog or my Twitter have ever made anyone laugh, chances are these books will too (and possibly cry a bit as well, but who knows?).  *More evil laughter*

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

NEW TRILOGY TITLE REVEALED!

Hello, hello, hello Dear Readers! My week's hiatus is over, my manuscript is marked-up and ready to be hacked into - and I have an exciting announcement for you, in case you hadn't guessed :)

You may remember a little while ago I told you that my new urban fantasy trilogy (details here), which will start coming out next year, was going to need a different series title than it's original one, The Katana Trilogy. This is because someone out there has already copyrighted (or possibly trademarked - it's a bit confusing) the word 'Katana' and this makes it hard for a publisher to go ahead with books under that name.

At first I was anxious and disappointed not to get to keep the orignal title. As soon as I realised that the story would need to be told over three books, I knew I wanted to call the series The Katana Trilogy. Katana is the Japanese name for a traditional longsword, and one of those magical words that brings to mind all kinds of beautiful imagery, even for people who aren't aware exactly what it means. I also thought that, what with it being short and simple, it would be easy to remember.

After my editor broke this news to me I spent the whole day coming up with new possible titles that ranged from OK to meh to downright nuts. But late that night I was unloading my tale of woe to friends in my writer's group, and someone made a suggestion which, while it didn't quite work, did spark off another possible title in my head. And this one I *loved*. It tied into a motif that was important in all three books individually, and also to one of the central mysteries of the whole trilogy.

I can now safely say that it is one of my favourite titles ever.

I was actually going to wait a while longer to announce the new title for the trilogy, because I wanted to combine it with the reveal for the cover artwork of the first book, The Night Itself. But we're still working on the cover, and the Amazon listing to pre-order The Night Itself has just appeared with the trilogy title on it! I thought I'd better spill the beans before some bright-spark noticed, amended the Goodreads page or something, and stole my thunder.

THIS is the new title for my very first urban fantasy trilogy (hi, those of you who scrolled straight down through all that waffling to get to the title). We're calling it: 

**THE NAME OF THE BLADE**


This is the Amazon listing for The Name of the Blade, Book One: The Night Itself.

The release for the book is shown as the 4th of July, which is the first time I've seen a solid date for publication, so that's exciting too.

What do you all think? Do you like the new title? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

BLOG HIATUS #2

Hello, my lovelies! Happy Thursday to you all!

You can probably guess from the not-very-imaginative post title what I'm talking to you about today. No fear! Just as last time, I'm not going away for long, and not for any scary reasons.

As my two week holiday from work draws toward its close, I'm getting incredibly revved up to dive into the re-reading, revision and polishing of As Yet Unnamed Trilogy Book #2. More than anything, I'd love to lock myself into my Writing Cave with a stock of Cup Ramen and chocolate and just tear through the editing process. But since my real life responsibilities can't be put aside that easily, I'm forced to look around for other stuff that I could cut out to make a bit of extra room for writing - and the blog clearly fits that definition. Much as I love you, Dear Readers, I'm fairly sure that you can manage to get along without me for a short while.

The blog hiatus will last for one week, and I will be back on Tuesday the 19th of November. If anyone would like to take the chance to leave questions on writing, reading & publishing in the comment thread here for me to answer when I get back, I'd love that.

In the meantime, take care of yourselves!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

TRILOGY BOOK #2 - FINISHED!

Well, not really finished. The first draft is, though, and is printed out and waiting impatiently in its sealed blue plastic case on the cushion on the rocking chair in the corner of the writing cave. It'll be staying there for the next two weeks while I gorge myself on new books, Season 4 of Castle, and sushi. Hopefully when that fortnight is up, I'll have enough distance to be able to revise it and improve it a bit before sending it off to Wonder Editor and Super Agent.

In the meantime: Whoooooooot!

Interesting facts about Book #2 of The As Yet Unnamed Trilogy (subject to change at the whim or myself or Wonder Editor):

The book has a title.

The title of the book is also the title of the final chapter.

The final chapter is eleven pages long.

The first word of the book is 'stealing'.

The final word of the book is 'home'.

For the first half of that final chapter, I was listening to the piece of music called 'Courtyard Apocalypse' from the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two sound track.

For the second half, I was listening to 'The Moment I Knew' from Taylor Swift's new album Red.

I listened to 'The Moment I Knew' twenty-three times before I was finished.

I cried for approximately three and a half hours while writing that chapter (which was not the whole day, but pretty much the whole afternoon).

Even though I call this the first draft, technically it's the third. That's because I write everything longhand in my notebook first, then type it up, revising as I go. And each day, before I start writing in my notebook, I read the day before's work and edit it again. This means that by the time Wonder Editor and Super Agent actually get to see it, it's really on the fourth draft. Which is sobering, when I consider how many drafts Wonder Editor and I normally go through...

In Other News! I'm very much hoping that I'm going to get to see the cover of The Night Itself soon, and that I'll be able to share it soon after that, along with the new series name (because it's not actually called The As Yet Unamed Trilogy, guys, okay?).

I think that's it for today, my lovelies! See you all for - I think - a writing related post on Thursday.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

RETROTUESDAY: WHO DESERVES A HAPPILY EVER AFTER?

Hi guys! Happy Tuesday to all. I'm working on a reader question post for Thursday, but today I felt it was a good time to unearth an essay that I wrote last year (mainly because I've come across yet another review which raised the same issues). So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ranty stylings of:

RetroTuesday: 
WHO DESERVES A HAPPILY EVER AFTER?

Over the weekend I got a Google Alert to tell me that an early review of Shadows on the Moon had appeared on a blog. I checked it out and the review was generally positive and had lots of nice things to say about the book, but despite this it caused me to nearly fall off the sofa in utter horror at two issues the reviewer raised.

I'm not going to name the blog or provide a link. For a start, I don't want to cause a dogpile. More importantly, I know that the reviewer has the absolute right to think and say whatever she wants. In many ways, her opinion on my book is none of my business. I have no problem with her at all, and I don't take issue with her review.

My horror had its origin in the sudden sinking sensation that the points the blogger raised were going to come up again. And again. And yet again. We live in a prejudiced world full of unfair assumptions and privilege, and when I wrote Shadows on the Moon I didn't think about any of that. I just wrote what I wanted and needed to write. My horror came from the realisation that we live in a world where people can still make statements which I feel betray a terrible lack of understanding for those different from them, without any apparent consciousness of the fact. If these points are going to end up being common in the discussion of the book - and I feel worried that they will - then I really want to make a definitive statement about them now.

The first thing that slapped me in the face was the language used to describe Otieno, the male main character in the story. Otieno is a member of a diplomatic party visiting the heroine's country from a foreign land. He's highly educated, softly spoken, funny and intelligent. He is emotionally articulate, polite, loves music and is an accomplished archer. The reviewer acknowledged much of this. Yet they still used the terms 'exotic' and 'savage' to describe him.

Why?

I bet you've already guessed. Otieno is black.

I think any regular reader of the blog will know how I feel about writing books that reflect the beautiful diversity of the real world, especially in fantasy (if not, go here, you'll soon get it). Shadows on the Moon is set in a faerytale version of Japan, so the vast majority of the characters are what we in the Western world would describe as 'Asian' in appearance. I created Otieno and his family to provide a contrast to this mono-ethnic world. I also created them to provide a contrast to the heroine Suzume's repressed, rigid, emotionally barren life. Otieno is, in many ways, the heroine's moral compass within the story.

I want to make it clear: Otieno is not 'savage'. Animals are savage. He is not exotic. Fruit is 'exotic'. Those terms are what is known as 'othering' language - language which isolates and alienates people, which subtly portrays them as less human, just because they are different to you. This is not okay. When you discuss characters of colour, please consider this.

Now we come to the second point which disturbed me: the attitude to mental illness.

The blogger very rightly picked up on the fact that Suzume suffers with depression throughout most of the book, and her ways of dealing with this are often self-destructive. No one who had been through the ordeal the heroine had by the age of fourteen could escape without suffering deep emotional trauma. Especially not if they had any vestiges of control wrenched out of their hands and were then forced to repress all their emotions about what had happened. I think it's also clear that Suzume's mother had depressive tendencies and passed these onto her daughter (just as my mother passed depressive tendencies onto me, and her mother passed them to her). To be fair, the reviewer had no problem with this.

What she did have a problem with? Was that Suzume was not cured of this depression by the end of the book. The blogger said she found it hard to believe in Suzume's future happiness because her depression was not fully 'addressed'. She wanted to know that Suzume would 'prevail' over her self destructive behaviour.

Look. This...I don't even know how to express how wrong this is. But it is sadly representative of a strong underlying assumption made by many neurotypical people (and, in fact, many people who themselves have mental health problems): that mental illness is a kind of fatal flaw in the personality, a stain on the character, an inescapable shadow on the life of the afflicted person. That it must surely be impossible for anyone to live a normal life if they're, you know, a bit cuckoo, and that in order for a fictional character to complete their story arc, they must throw off their mental illness and take their place among the normal people.

*No.*

PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS DESERVE HAPPILY EVER AFTERS.

There is no cure for depression - not even in this day and age. Sometimes it goes away on its own, and sometimes you suffer with it periodically for your whole life. Sometimes it's as mild as feeling sad and low for no reason and sometimes it's as extreme as feeling that all you want is to kill yourself. And guess what? Millions of people live with it. I do. That doesn't mean we can't be happy, or that we need to be in limbo until we somehow figure out a way to escape from our mental illness. It doesn't mean the only worthwhile stories about us need to be stories of finding a mythical cure for the way our brains work instead of stories of having adventures *despite* our mental health issues.

And here's another fact: people who self harm also deserve happy endings. They can HAVE a happy ending even if, now and again, they may revert to self-harming again during times of stress.

How can these issues be addressed? How can a character prevail over their depression and their tendency to self harm? Well, they can take control of their own life as much as possible. They can isolate the things that trigger depression and work on that. They can make the decision to try to resist self-destructive behaviours. It's not a dramatic-flash-of-light-chorus-of-angels kind of thing. It's an ongoing process, and it's hard. This is what Suzume decides to do at the end of Shadows on the Moon. Because there is no super-special-awesome-sparkly cure for mental illness or self-harm. And the young adults who are going through similar trials in their own lives KNOW THIS.

How much of a cop-out would it have been for me to show my character shrugging off her trauma and suffering like an old cloak and skipping away with unalloyed, undamaged happiness at the end of all she had been through?

Just what message would that have given to anyone reading the book who has a mental illness? 'Get over it or you'll never get a happily ever after?'

You know what? Imma say it again:

PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS DESERVE HAPPILY EVER AFTERS.

So do people with scars and disabilities (which is why Zira and Sorin don't get magically healed at the end of Daughter of the Flames)! So do all kinds of people who are not perfect, normal, typical and beautiful. So do people who have made mistakes, done awful things, and hope one day to redeem themselves. So do people who are lost and lonely or isolated or 'othered' by the society where they dwell.

These are the people that Shadows on the Moon was written for. And to them I offer a big virtual hug, and a virtual cookie, and the assurance that there are people out there who do understand. You are not alone.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

FINALE FEAR

Hi everyone! Today's post is about a new writing experience I have just discovered: Finale Fear.

Finale Fear is sort of a new thing for me, and I think it's because right now I am writing Book #2 of the As Yet Unnamed Trilogy. Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up (will I ever get tired of quoting The Princess Bride? Probably not!).

Normally when I come to write the finale of any book I am so excited about finally getting there, finally getting to the end - usually writing one of the first scenes I ever envisioned for the story - that I get swept along on this tide of euphoria. It's an amazing feeling that often produces some of my best writing, and it lasts until about half an hour after I've typed The End, at which point I get a bit tearful and need chocolate and Taylor Swift or possibly Katy Perry.

Anyway, the point is: I love writing endings. Normally. The only exception to this was the end of FrostFire, for reasons which people who have read FrostFire will probably understand.

Now, the ending of The Night Itself was no exception to this. Long-time readers may remember that my Finale Euphoria was so strong that I wrote the whole thing (nearly 9,000 words of it!) in a single mammoth session one Sunday, and that I had to ice my hand afterwards because my hand kind of swelled up and went all stiff.

But somehow, the ending to Book #2, which I will be starting as of tomorrow, is freaking me out.

Maybe it's the fact that I love the ending of The Night Itself so much. Because I do. Something magical happened during my insane writing frenzy that Sunday and for the first time in my life the stuff that ended up on the page? Actually matched the stuff in my head. Which may sound really crazy but I know the writers out there get what I mean. That *never* happens. Except this one time it DID. It might never happen to me again, so I cherish the experience - but it does mean that future finales have a lot to live up to.

Or maybe it's because the events of this finale are huge, dramatic and emotional and yet - because there is another book to come - they aren't really the *end* of this story. Obviously plenty of threads need to be left lying loose or there would be nothing left to happen in Book #3. With The Night Itself I don't think the fact that I was writing a trilogy had quite sunk in yet. After spending the last ten months editing The Night Itself and drafting Book #2 at the same time? It has now definitely sunk in. So even though I'm going to put everything I have into writing this finale, some tiny part of my brain is not seeing it as a proper ending, and is refusing to give me my delicious euphoria.

But whatever the reason, now that I'm looking at the final 10,000 words of so of my book, instead of Finale Euphora, I have Finale Fear. Oh, the FEAR. It is not delicious at all.

Cross your fingers for me, my lovelies! I need all the help I can get.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A QUESTION OF BOYS ONLY

Hello, Dear Readers, and a very happy Tuesday to you all.

Today we're tackling a question from the comments in response to the WOMEN DOMINATE? post. It goes as follows:
...I know of a school library that opened up a Boys' Zone in the corner of the library. Like, a place only for boys, where there are books that the school believes may be good for boys only. So I felt that I should tell YOU about this, because I wanted to hear your opinion on this. Should a school be doing this? Opening up a 'boy zone' in the corner of their library, making an impression that it is only 'cool' for boys to read those specific books? What do you think?
Commenter, you are not alone. I have heard of several schools and libraries who have been trying to encourage boys to read in this fashion.

So what do I think of it? Well, I think it's great that schools and libraries are trying to remove the stigma of reading - the idea that it's boring, or nerdy, or something you have to endure 'for your own good' like a dose of Cod Liver Oil - and present books to young men as a source of fun and excitement. Because I believe that reading can and should be both of those things.

Unfortunately, I not think that segregated reading areas is going to achieve this. In fact, I think it's tackling the problem pretty much exactly backwards, and it's likely to do a lot more harm than good.

From here on out, commenter, I will address my reply to the people who have come up with this scheme, rather than you, just so that I can argue to the best of my ability.

I laid out the reasons that I believe boys drift away from reading in adolescence in great detail in my previous post so I'm not going to go through all that again. But the simple fact is that by making a special Boys Only area in a library and banning girls from that area, you are just deepening young men's impression that the female of the species is 'other'. What other impression would they get, when all the authority figures in this scenario (librarians, teachers, parents) are endorsing this view by their actions?

In your Boys only area 'girl books' - eg. books which have female authors, which deal with traditionally feminine subject matters, or which simply have prominent female characters - are excluded. This means that you are creating a special new library just for the young men. But what kind of library?

A library which offers them only a male perspective on life? A library full of books that reinforce only traditional western ideas of what it is to be male? A library which, by excluding feminine stories, tacitly confirms that they are not worthy of inclusion - and that to be interested in them is somehow wrong? A library that represents only 50% of the human race, but pretends that this is somehow entirely sufficient?

Men already dominate our literary tradition. We know this. The majority of the 'classics' that we study in school are by men, men get the majority of sales, of awards, of critical attention. But now, to take that a step further and create a new library within the library, a library within which any books tainted by the feminine are simply not allowed to exist? A library where it is assumed that anything so inferior as to be written by a woman, or about a woman, or preferred by women, is simply unnecessary?

What kind of a library is that?

In my opinion, it's not a library at all.

Segregating boys in this way may indeed make them feel special and privileged. But boys and men are already treated as special and privileged in this society. That is why they refuse to touch books written by women, starring women, or popular with women. In telling them that it is perfectly OK and natural for them to scorn the feminine, that women and girls and the stories and viewpoints of women and girls can and should be ignored, you are simply reinforcing that message of privilege which has been broadcast at them since birth by everything from toy displays in the shops to films, TV, magazines and advertising.

Is it possible to believe that this bombardment will achieve anything other than to deepen young men's prejudice and contempt for female authors and readers? It is possible to believe that while this huge barrier of privilege exists - that while young men are not only able but encouraged to live inside a Boys Only Zone, and treat the mere idea of empathy for women and girls with scorn - that they will grow up to be passionate and wide-ranging readers, who treasure the knowledge and sense of discovery that books offer?

I very much doubt it. Why would they ever want to come out from behind that wall and embrace scary new ideas and information, once they're firmly entrenched in a space where they are the centre of the universe?

Let's stop and think for a moment. You've created your Boys Only Zone. It's pretty small, just a corner. So now 85% of the library is for everybody, and 15% is Boys Only (or whatever percentage it works out to). Do you really believe that having created a special area just for them, the boys will now ever be persuaded out of it? Do you think they will be caught dead in the rest of the library? No, of course not. Because while you may believe that the other 85% of your library is for everybody, the boys have got the message loud and clear: if 15% of the library is for boys, then the rest of it must be for girls.
 
And they cannot go where girls go, or read what girls read, or even be interested in the stories they write. They know this, or else why would you have given them their own special part of the library, just for them, where girl's books do not exist? Where there is no female perspective and no need for one?

You can forget about the idea of those boys exploring the library and discovering new favourites elsewhere. They won't. Those other books are all for girls. The only books that they need - that they are allowed to need - are Boys Only Books.

Meanwhile, what message do you think young women are taking from this? When you ignore their passion for books, turn away from their love of words and stories and their achievements in reading with a dissatisfied frown because they're not boys? When you exclude them from parts of the library and dedicate resources that are supposed to be for all young people to boys alone, because they are more important to you?

Boys Only Zones are crazy. Not crazy in the good way. Just crazy.

Don't do it.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

MONSTERS CALLING HOME

Hello and happy Thursday, Dear Readers. Calm yourselves - today's post title doesn't mean that I'm about to start ranting about something (again).

Monsters Calling Home is an indie band that I discovered on the blog of Ellen Oh (thank you, Ellen!) and have been listening to almost constantly since. They have this beautifully textured, lush sound that's made up of accoustic arrangements and mellow vocals, and they not only perform their own quirky, unique songs but do the occasional unexpected cover.

What I really love about this band, though, is that (from the videos I've seen, anyway) they're really sweet, humble people who've achieved the success they have through being willing to work ridiculously hard and put up with a lot of discomfort. They're not huge yet, but I hope they will be one day. They deserve it.

I tweeted about them all over the place a couple of weeks ago, but it only occurred to me this morning that I'd never recommended them 'officially' on the blog. So here we go! I officially recommend them!

Check out the Monsters Calling Home website here. You can buy their songs either directly from their website or through iTunes. Here's a sample of their music:

My favourite song of there's is possibly their emotional, lyrical, cover of The Killer's Mr Brightside. I'm unable to embed that here, but this is the page where you can listen to it for free. 

And here's a video of the band performing another great original song, Foxbeard:


I now feel that my work here is done :) See you all on Tuesday, lovelies!

Monday, 8 October 2012

WOMEN DOMINATE? IN WHAT UNIVERSE?

Hello, my lovelies! I know it's not Tuesday yet, but the Tuesday post has rolled around early because I want to share with you an article I read today, which made me feel like choirs of heavenly voices were singing and casting golden light on me: Gender Balance in YA Awards

The glory of this article, Dear Readers! It has confirmed what I always suspected based on knowledge of my field: while there may be slightly more female YA authors (and why is that supposed to be a problem? More on that below!) men still dominate in terms of critical attention and also (although this is not covered explicitly in the post) tend to dominate in terms of sales, with the average NYT Bestseller list (as pointed out by Shannon Hale and Maureen Johnson) showing an 8:2 ratio in favour of male writers.

And yet! It is still widely accepted as fact that YA is 'dominated' by female authors and female stories, and that somehow the ladies are to *blame* for a drop in boy's interest in reading during teenage years. So widely accepted that while that post was making the rounds on Twitter this afternoon I actually saw a male author arguing that there is a 'boy crisis' in YA, and that the stats in the Gender Balance post don't work because male authors win a disproportionate amount of awards.

Um. What? If male authors win a disproportionate amount of awards in the YA field, doesn't that merely illustrate the same point?

I'd really like to know what the people who continually harp on about this - about the lack of 'boy books' and the 'feminisation' of YA - would like to see as a solution. Female authors realising the error of their ways and discarding their silly novels about silly girls, and henceforth writing only books about young men being traditionally manly? Female authors taking on androgynous pseudonyms in order to avoid scaring young men off with their lady cooties? Female authors retiring from the field of YA writing altogether and running cakeshops instead so that the men can take their rightful place as leading lights of YA?

Having, in the past, witnessed some commentors stating that there needs to be a drive to create an influx of male editors, publishers, cover designers and writers into the YA sector (to drive away the girl cooties?) I fear that ludicrous as it seems, the above paragraph might actually be more accurate than the people obsessed with 'boy books' would admit.

Of course, if a large number of women were to stop writing YA books and the number of female protagonists and books specifically aimed at young women were to drop, that wouldn't hurt anything, would it? Everyone knows girls are happy to read about the universal experience of being a boy, whereas boys are naturally horrified at reading about that weird niche experience of being a girl. It's not like women and girls actually make up just over half the human race - and therefore half of the human experience - or anything.

And even if literacy rates among girls did drop - maybe to levels lower than the current levels for boys - well, that wouldn't matter either, would it? That's the way it always used to be, boys coming first in everything, and it never did anyone any harm, did it?



Has anyone stopped to question why it is that there *are* slightly more female authors and slightly more female editors in the field of children's and YA publishing? I should say it's fairly obvious. It's for the same reason that there are more female pediatricians, female nursery-school/kindergarden assistants, female elementary/primary school teachers, female nannies etc. etc. Because our society teaches us, every day and in every way, that being interested in and looking after children is women's business. That's it's OK and natural for us to get into any job that is concerned with kids.

Men don't go into those fields very often because, in general, it's not considered normal or natural for them to be interested in or want to care for children. You only have to watch the episode of Friends where seemingly sensitive, New Male character Ross is repelled by the very idea of a male nanny, to see the attitudes that are likely to put young men off from any career where their primary business is dealing with kids. Not to mention that any field in which the majority of roles are filled by women is likely to be far lower paid than a field which is dominated by men. We're still nowhere near pay equality anywhere in the world.

Why the sudden outcry, then, at the idea that there may be slightly more females working in YA or children's publishing and writing, even if guys do in general win the majority of the awards and get the majority of the sales in that field?

Because, all of a sudden, YA and children's publishing have become high profile and lucrative. And this has caused all the people that previously dismissed writing for children or working in children's publishing as petty and unimportant - and therefore, naturally, 'women's work' - to discover a deep interest in it. But to their shock and disgust, the three biggest names in children's and YA writing are women (Rowling, Meyer and Collins) and many of the most successful agents and editors are also women. Women are doing BETTER than the men! Not in terms of general sales or award attention or anything, but STILL! What is the world coming to when such a high profile and lucrative field is full of GIRLS? The WOMEN are taking up room and attention that the MEN need!

No wonder boys don't read!

Bunkum. It is that attitude, that very one, which causes boys not to read. Nothing to do with icky female authors and their icky books that dare to treat female characters and their stories as important. Everything to do with a society that teaches young men that in order to be normal they must embrace the traditional ideals of masculinity by rejecting any activity might might be considered feminine, even tangentially (like reading) and throwing themselves into sports and outdoor pursuits and an obsession with sex and violence. Everything to do with a society that teaches young men that being a great reader is nerdy and girly or even - worst of all! - GAY, and that if they do read, they must be careful to never, ever, ever betray any interest in anything 'girly', like a book with a woman's name on it or a girl protagonist.

Everything to do with a society that accepts male dominance as so natural, so unquestionably normal and right, that the NPR list of Best YA Novels, which was split quite equally between male and female authors - 59 women, 44 men - is heralded as evidence of some unnatural, sick 'feminisation' of the publishing category. The people who reacted with shock to this list feel instinctively that YA ought to be dominated by men, just like TV, films, advertising, academics, medicine and every other profitable field in our world.

So what if male YA authors do appear to get more awards and more sales? That isn't enough. The idea of a significant amount of women being prominent beside men in any important field is so alien that a slight majority of female YA authors (even if they're not receiving as much critical attention or getting as many readers) is considered, in itself, a problem. Things will only be right when things flip the other way and male authors not only dominate in awards and sales but also sheer numbers. Only then will the natural order be restored, and boys miraculously become great readers - even though, of course, they will still scorn and turn away from any books written by, giving starring roles to, or marketed at, girls.

What is the betting, Dear Readers, if that through some twist of fate being a nanny suddenly became a high profile and lucrative field, people would be leaping out of the woodwork straight away to condemn the female domination of this profession? That suddenly fingers would be pointing at the women who've been quietly doing this job for decades and blaming them for the 'feminisation' of the young people under their care? That there'd be talk of trying to encourage men into the field so that boys - those poor, misunderstood boys! - didn't miss out unfairly?

Listen up.

Fewer boys read because our society teaches that it is not 'normal' for them - ie., manly for them - to be interested in sitting quietly in their room reading books. Since they're also taught that the most horrible, awful thing to be accused of in the world is being unmanly or, in other words, 'girly' (or, le gasp, GAY, quelle horreur!) of course many of them jump ship from reading to killing things on computer screens as soon as they hit puberty.

Fewer men enter the field of children's and YA publishing because our society teaches that a career focused on children and young adults is not 'normal' for them - ie., manly - and because they are aware that 'women's jobs' are not as well paid (even though it turns out that many men will be rewarded for entering this field with better sales and critical attention).

THIS IS NOT WOMEN'S FAULT.

Stop blaming us for the effects of a society that oppresses us. We're not the ones that built it (even though many of us are so indoctrinated by it that we will fight to defend it). That's why it's a patriarchy. If you don't like it, try dismantling it. Good luck. I'll be over here writing the stories I want to write in the way that seems best to me, without any regard to you, or any other group that apparently sees my contribution to my chosen field as so utterly pointless and insignificant. I don't need to justify the fact that I'm female or that I'm interested in the stories of female characters, and nor do the other lady children's and YA writers out there.

WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO EXIST, THE RIGHT TO CREATE, AND THE RIGHT TO PROSPER.

If you feel that mere fact threatens you and the young men in your life? The problem is yours. Not ours.

If you need anymore background on the different ways that boys and girls are socialised to act? Read this: Boys Will Be Boys Is No Excuse.

Oh, and if you think that I'm wrong, and We're All Equal Now, So We Should Shut Up And Go Home? That post has some pretty telling points to make on the skewed idea of 'equality' that the media presents too (but this has adult language and a trigger warning, so stay away if it's not for you). 
 

Thursday, 4 October 2012

UNSPOKEN BY SARAH REES BRENNAN: A Review

Happy Thursday, my lovelies! The week is almost over, and so it seems the perfect time to recommend you a great book that you could read over the weekend. The book in question?

UNSPOKEN by SARAH REES BRENNAN

The Synopsis

Kami Glass loves someone she’s never met . . . a boy she’s talked to in her head ever since she was born. She wasn’t silent about her imaginary friend during her childhood, and is thus a bit of an outsider in her sleepy English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Still, Kami hasn’t suffered too much from not fitting in. She has a best friend, runs the school newspaper, and is only occasionally caught talking to herself. Her life is in order, just the way she likes it, despite the voice in her head.

But all that changes when the Lynburns return.

The Lynburn family has owned the spectacular and sinister manor that overlooks Sorry-in-the-Vale for centuries. The mysterious twin sisters who abandoned their ancestral home a generation ago are back, along with their teenage sons, Jared and Ash, one of whom is eerily familiar to Kami. Kami is not one to shy away from the unknown—in fact, she’s determined to find answers for all the questions Sorry-in-the-Vale is suddenly posing. Who is responsible for the bloody deeds in the depths of the woods? What is her own mother hiding? And now that her imaginary friend has become a real boy, does she still love him? Does she hate him? Can she trust him?




The Review

I read this book ages ago. I mean aaaages. When I found out that advanced copies were available on NetGalley in March I was in there like a greyhound after a fuzzy toy rabbit (not surprising considering my opinion of Sarah Rees Brennan's earlier books) and I snorfled the book down in approximately three hours. When I finished I tried to stand up and fell over because I'd been sitting on my legs for so long without moving that they had completely fallen asleep. I think it's safe to say that I was gripped.

But it's taken me all this time to review the book, and that delay isn't purely because I was waiting for the book to be released before I started talking about it. The delay was mostly because I had FEELS while reading this book. Many, many feels. I still have them now, just thinking about it. My thoughts are complex and swirly and keep wanting to spurt out of my ears. Mostly when I try to talk to people about UNSPOKEN I end up making a weird face and producing these funny groaning noises, like: 'God it's so... grrrrgh. It's just arrrgh! You know? Nnnngh.'

So apologies if this review is even less coherent than usual.

First of all, UNSPOKEN is a complete change of tone and pace from SRB's previous trilogy, The Demon's Lexicon. Those books were incredibly fast paced and really dark all the way through. There was humour there but the jokes were like the inflatable emergency vessels you see on the walls of big ships: very important, and you're glad to see them there, but not really vital to keeping you afloat most of the time.

In UNSPOKEN? The humour is the ship. It's what is going to carry you where you need to go. And because this is part Gothic novel, part murder mystery, the pace is necessarily slower and the plot less action-based. SRB is subtly unspooling clues and hints and foreshadowing aaaall over the place, as well as establishing a much larger cast of important characters right from the start. The darkness comes in disconcerting flashes that are all the more disturbing because they're contrasted against an idyllic setting and quite normal teenage characters who are initially more concerned about taking naps or finding something to eat (or, in Kami's case, proving to everyone that she is the world's best Girl Detective) than survival.

Straight away, this quite daring change in writing style reminded me of a favourite author of mine: Diana Wynne Jones. DWJ's books are so wildly different from each other that it's kind of a joke among her fans. DWJ was also an author who used humour as an integral part of her work, and who wasn't afraid to contrast that with seriously horrific images and elements. Her plots tended to hinge on moments of what dramatists call peripeteia - sudden and complete reversals in the plot which shed an entirely new light on everything that has gone before. There are a few other reasons why this novel reminded me of DWJ's books, but to share them would be to spoil, so my lips are zipped.

But the deeper that I got into the book, the more I found myself thinking about Mary Stewart. She was an adult author who wrote brilliant romantic suspense novels, and one of the things that made her work unique was this astonishing sense of PLACE she always achieved. The rich tapestry of smells, textures, sights and sounds in her stories always made you feel that you had really visited Greece or France or Northumbria, and SRB achieves that exact feeling in UNSPOKEN. The setting of Sorry-in-the-Vale is dense with detail, with a sense of fully realised history. This is all the more remarkable when you find that Sorry-in-the-Vale is an entirely fictional setting.

The other Mary Stewart-ish aspect of SRB's book is the sense of menace. With each page the tension seems to grow, hovering overhead like stormclouds about to burst, and by a third of the way in you really are suspecting EVERYONE - even the characters you like a lot - and completely unsure of who Kami should trust.

One of my favourite things about this book, however, was the way in which it differed from most of the work of both the authors mentioned above, by creating for main character Kami a warm, loving and close-knit family. Not only are they a big part of Kami's life but they are also deeply embroiled in the mystery that Kami is trying to solve, and possibly endangered by Kami's discoveries. That was such a novelty in a book with fantasy/paranormal elements that I gloried in it. My favourite character is Ten, Kami's sensible, quiet little brother. I would swap him for MY little brother any day.

And Kami not only has a family but a large and diverse cast of friends, and it's there that I kind of want to go all fangirly and just hug the book because Angela, the beautiful yet apathetic brunette best friend character who hates almost all human interaction is basically Bella Swan, if Bella Swan was British and had a best friend (called Kami) who wouldn't take no for an answer, and subtly bullied her into getting involved in things, and forced her to have a sense of humour. Bella, I can confidently state, would have been far better off for this interference. Holly (a friend that Kami rediscovers along the way) is another common YA trope turned on its head: the busty, out-going, popular blonde who seems to think about nothing but boys. In TV and novels, she's usually a heartless b*tch who will try to wreck the heroine's life for giggles. In real life, of course, that girl wants and needs friends who see her for who she is inside just as much as the socially disconnected brunette girl does.

Something else happens with regard to Angela and Holly that also makes me want to hug the book, and SRB. But again, it is to spoil. Lips zipped.

However, now we come to the part that is so complex and where I'm basically prevented from saying anything interesting or useful because of teh spoilers. Jared. Ash. GHHGHGH! The traditional YA paranormal love triangle it is not and I. Have. The. Feels. You see, if I say that Jared is basically the antithesis of Nick from The Demon's Lexicon, and Ash is like the flip-side of Alan from The Demon's Lexicon you will not understand what I am trying to say. You'll think you do BUT YOU WILL BE WRONG. I can see what SRB is doing here! It makes me so very excited!

*Makes helpless hand gestures*

Look, just suffice it to say that the relationship stuff in this book is every bit as complicated as the relationship stuff in a real teenager's life and that's before you bring in the mind-reading soulmate aspect of the thing. Some bits, like Jared's aversion to touch and something that happens right at the end of the book are so intriguing and clever, I don't even know what to say about them. I will try to refrain from anymore of the strange subvocal noises though.

I am so looking forward to getting my hands on the next book in this trilogy and seeing SRB really dig into the magical mythology that underlies the plot and the character's heritage. There is clearly some insanely juicy (and bloody) stuff there and I wants it, my precious. I'm also on tenterhooks waiting to see where Kami and Jared (and Kami and Ash? Maybe?) will go after the devastating events of the book's climax. My need to read book #2 is increased by the unresolved ending of UNSPOKEN. I'm not sure, now that I've calmed down, that I can really call it a cliffhanger, but it's certainly open-ended, and I think we're set to see some truly mind-bending changes to the status quo that SRB set up in book #1.

In other words? UNSPOKEN = highly recommended. Go get it. Shoo.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

VESSEL BY SARAH BETH DURST: A Review

Hello, Dear Readers! Welcome back. Lately I've read several really interesting books that I enjoyed a lot, so I decided to make an effort to actually review them instead of just giving them star ratings on Goodreads. Today's book is a fantastic high fantasy by a well-respected novelist whose work I've somehow never read before.

VESSEL by SARAH BETH DURST

The Synopsis:   

In a desert world of sandstorms and sand-wolves, a teen girl must defy the gods to save her tribe in this mystical, atmospheric tale from the author of Drink, Slay, Love.

Liyana has trained her entire life to be the vessel of a goddess. The goddess will inhabit Liyana’s body and use magic to bring rain to the desert. But Liyana’s goddess never comes. Abandoned by her angry tribe, Liyana expects to die in the desert. Until a boy walks out of the dust in search of her.

Korbyn is a god inside his vessel, and a trickster god at that. He tells Liyana that five other gods are missing, and they set off across the desert in search of the other vessels. For the desert tribes cannot survive without the magic of their gods. But the journey is dangerous, even with a god’s help. And not everyone is willing to believe the trickster god’s tale.


Get a load of that! And perfectly representative, too!
The Review:

I shouldn't think it's a surprise that, having seen the cover and read the synopsis of this book, I was excited and intrigued. It's a non-European inspired setting and it deals with gods and faith and has what sounds like a strong heroine; all very much my bag. Plus, it all reminded me a little bit of one of my absolute favourite YA fantasies, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, which also has a desert setting and depicts the interference of god into human lives.

However, that level of interest also made me feel a tiny bit wary because it would be so easy for this book to let me down. I hesitated over buying the ebook for a few days, then finally bit the bullet and downloaded it to take with me on my journey last Friday.

I did not regret it. From the very first line this story caught me up and refused to let my attention go. Get a load of this:
On the day she was to die, Liyana walked out of her family's tent to see the dawn. She buried her toes in the sand, cold from the night, and she wrapped her father's goatskin cloak tight around her shoulders. She had only moments before everyone would wake.
Right?! Who could put the book down after THAT?

Sarah Beth Durst's world-building is a thing of wonder - beautifully subtle, with almost no noticeable exposition, but a sense of immersiveness that makes her setting just shine off the pages. The mention of glass dragons and sand wolves might make you think you were going to get something quite whimsical and surreal; in fact, that's not the case at all. The unnamed desert land within which almost all of the story takes place actually has a very gritty, real quality. 

Through the main character Liyana's intense, sensory experiences of life in her beloved desert, and through the stories that Liyana trades with and is told by others throughout the book, we get a rich sense of a living, breathing environment - of the beauty and terror of shifting sands, endless skies and isolated oases - and of a textured, evolving culture that is clearly influenced by many of the cultures of this world, but in a really interested and respectful way.

Speaking of Liyana? Well, I'd read a couple of reviews that stated Liyana was hard to empathise with or that she was - you know - that word. The one that ends in Mary and finishes with Sue? Grghgh. Fools! Fools! Liyana is precisely the kind of heroine that I love to read about, and which YA fantasy needs more of! She is a person, not a stereotype! She is flawed, yet awesome! I loved her!

The protagonist of the novel is truly strong, not just because she is a sensible, capable young woman with hard won survival skills and a badass knife made out of the scale of a glass dragon. Liyana has the kind of high moral bravery that motivates women here in the real world to achieve astonishing everyday feats and make humbling sacrifices in order to keep their families safe and fed. But in the midst of her sense of duty and purpose - and her quest, which is literally a matter of life and death for her people - Liyana is also always willing to listen, to learn, and to reassess the facts as needed. I loved her subtle, dry sense of humour and her unwillingly soft heart that causes her to care even for her enemies. 

After being abandoned by her family and her tribe, Liyana is torn by conflicting emotions. Soon everything that she knows about her Gods and her own purpose in life is turned upside down, and she's facing truly fearful dilemmas, choices that will affect not only her own life but the lives of everyone and everything she cares about. While her turmoil is sensitively portrayed, the book never strays into over-emotionalism (wish I knew how to get that balance right) and it was a real treat to read about a young woman who both felt things deeply and was also able to override her emotions and act ruthlessly when necessary.

Without spoiling too much (the synopsis there is carefully devoid of details) I will say that Vessel provided me with one of the few romantic storylines I've read lately which actually eluded labels or predictability. I don't think predictability is always a bad thing, by the way, but it was really intriguing to be faced with a situation in which I not only couldn't *guess* how things were going to end up, but also couldn't make up my mind how I *wanted* them to end up. I was surprised and delighted by the ending.

I was also really satisfied by the way that the plot developed. The book was well paced - no long stretches of boredom, or even any places where my attention wavered for a page or two. And it may have been a result of reading an ebook, which made it impossible to really judge just where I was in the story, but I loved the fact that just when I thought we'd gotten to the end and the quest was complete, it turned out that nothing was as simple as that, and everything Liyana (and I!) had assumed was going to unfold at that point... didn't. That's not an easy trick to pull off!

VESSEL is one of the most interesting and well-written YA high fantasies that I've read the ages. I recommend it to anyone who likes the books of Rae Carson, Tamora Pierce, or, in fact, me :)

Thursday, 20 September 2012

FROSTFIRE IN GERMANY

Hello and Happy Thursday!

I'm feeling a little tense today because tomorrow I'm off to Sheffield Highschool, where I'll be doing an event with about a hundred young ladies. For some reason school visits make me more nervous than any other kind of event, even the swishy posh ones where I'm supposed to act like a grown-up. My writing group think maybe it's because I get flashbacks to my own fairly horrific school-age experiences. I wonder if it's because these guys - young people - are my actual audience and the ones I'm dedicated to reaching and pleasing. In either case, I have the collywobbles. Wish me luck, Dear Readers!

In the meantime, I have some news to share - and you can probably guess what it is from the not-terribly-subtle post title. FrostFire has sold its first foreign right, to the German market. Which is exciting not only because, you know - my book in another language, a new interpretation of the cover art - but also because the German publisher is Carlsen Verlag.

That's... Carlsen Verlag, German publisher of Kristin Cashore, Melissa Marr, Scott Westerfield, Leigh Bardugo, Stephenie Meyer and a certain J.K. Rowling.

*Pause while Zolah muffles her squeeing in a pillow*

Ahem. And apparently they're intending to ramp up the focus on their selection of translated titles from Autumn 2013, and were looking for a special lead title to launch the new programme. Guess what that title is?

*More muffled squeeing*

So FrostFire gets to be the lead translated title from this amazing publisher in Autumn next year. I'm thrilled, and can't wait to see how the German version looks. Yay, Germany!

Thursday, 6 September 2012

BLOG HIATUS

Hello, my darling Dear Readers! I come to you today to announce (as the blog title suggests) that there will be a short blog hiatus starting next Tuesday and lasting for one week. I'll be back as normal the Tuesday after, the 18th of September.

Before anyone panics - everything is fine! Nothing catastrophic has happened. It's just that my parents are going on holiday next week, to a place that has its own a dialysis unit which will be looking after my dad while they're away. And that means I get a week off too (yay!). Since my The Night Itself edits came back to me this past weekend, this seems like a really opportune time to get as much work done, both on the edit and on book #2 of the trilogy as well. I actually meant to tell you guys about this on Tuesday but I forgot. My bad.

However, I might have some interesting news for you tomorrow. I literally can't tell you a thing about it at this stage because nothing has been confirmed and no details have been given. If I GET any details and am allowed to share, I'll do a post about it on Friday. If not, you'll know because there will be no post.

Goodness, that was cryptic. I'm like a ninja. A blinky, blonde NINJA.

In any case, have a great weekend everyone!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A QUESTION OF BROTHERS

Hello, Dear Readers! Happy Tuesday to all, and I hope you've had a lovely weekend, most especially those of you who are going back to school today, or will be in the next day or so. Hang in there, my peeps. I survived it: you can too.

Today I'm answering a question about The Swan Kingdom from a young writer who asks to be referred to by her FanFiction handle, The Imaginatrix. She says:
What made you decide to reduce the number of brothers involved to three? One of the things I loved about "The Wild Swans" was the number of brothers...
This is a really great question because it not only gives me the chance to offer you some information about my writing process, it also allows me to go back and dig into my own motivations, and quite often when I do that I discover stuff about the instinctive choices I've made that's very useful to me moving forward. *Airpunch*

So! The Imaginatrix is right. The number of siblings included in my version of 'The Wild Swans' is vastly reduced from either the eleven brothers you see in Hans Christian Andersen's tale or the seven that you sometimes see in other variations of it (for example, in the version where the brothers are ravens, rather than swans).


There were several factors included in this decision, although at the time it didn't really feel like a decision at all; it just felt like the only way things could or should be. It must have been one of the most basic things I 'knew' about The Swan Kingdom, before I even started work on it - that there would be four children in the doomed family rather than twelve or eight.

Why? Well firstly let's go back to 2004-2005 when I was planning and writing Wild Swans, as it was titled then. Harry Potter was at the zenith of its fame and success, so there was a real demand from publishers for exciting fiction aimed at 8-12 year olds, and as a result of the ever-expanding wordcount of JKR's books, those novels were starting to get a bit fatter even for regular, non-bestselling writers.

But I was writing YA, and at that point the category hadn't experienced any kind of similar boom. Twilight wasn't yet a sparkle in Smeyer's eye, and Suzanne Collins was still writing middle grade fiction herself. In fact, many publishers during this period saw YA novels from anyone other than established big names as problematic, a bit of a hard sell, and - having seen legendary YA author and personal icon Tamora Pierce dropped by UK Random House due to disappointing sales in GB - I was well aware of this. Debut YA novels didn't get any latitude in word count. They were generally expected to be somewhere in the region of 45,000 to 65,000 words long.

Now, a published author with a good relationship with their editor might be able to get around this a bit, but I was a complete newbie. I didn't have an agent and I didn't have any connections in the publishing industry. I knew that if I sent a query for a YA novel to any publisher, and mentioned a wordcount much over 65,000 words, I would just be asking to be rejected out of hand. So I was determined to bring the book in under that.

But at the same time, a huge part of my motivation in writing a re-telling of the fairytale was to thoroughly explore who these people really were. In fairytales you're told what people did and said, where they went, the great and terrible deeds they perform - but you're never told why. Why is the wicked stepmother so evil? Why is her husband the King so easily duped? Just who are these children, and how do they survive the suffering they go through in the story with their sanity intact? Where does the princess get her towering silent strength and determination to save her brothers? I wanted to take the fairytale stereotypes and turn them into PEOPLE. People with fully realised personalities and  complex motivations. If I couldn't do that then I didn't want to write the book at all.

You can immediately see the conflict here. In a book of 65,000 words or less how could I possibly fully characterise eleven brothers - as individuals - rather than a homogenous mass of Brother? How could I possibly make each of these young men a human with unique, memorable traits? Especially since the fairy tale has these boys losing their human form practically at the beginning? There was no way! I couldn't do it now, with four published books under my belt, and I certainly couldn't do it then. So the number had to be reduced in some way.

Now, throughout all the years of my childhood I had this poster on my bedroom wall:


It's a piece of art called The Children of Lir and it's inspired by a Celtic Myth of the same name - a story in which a wicked stepmother transforms the children of her husband (the god Lugh) into swans and dooms them to spend hundreds of years living on each of Ireland's great lakes. It's a ridiculously beautiful painting, as you can see, and it's also a very vivid, striking image - of three brothers and one sister.

During the early planning stages of writing The Swan Kingdom, when I was still working out the setting and how the world and its magic would work, I saw a documentary on the BBC about pre-historic, pre-Roman civilisations in the UK, and I found it fascinating. Not much is known about the indigenous British people who created Stonehenge and Avebury and all the other great Paleolithic monuments of Great Britain, or why their beliefs caused them to sink such massive amounts of time and effort into building these temples of stone, into recreating the natural landscape in such a way. And when we don't know much? We can *invent*.

Something clicked in my head. The Celtic myth of The Children of Lir, the pre-historic people of Britain and their possessive reverence for their land which caused them to attempt to reshape it permanently, lost Celtic and ancient British beliefs, cave paintings that showed man and animal spirits melting together, traditions of oral storytelling passed down through the matriarchal line... all these things seemed to fit perfectly into the story I wanted to tell. And that made it feel natural and right to use the family structure from that Celtic myth, the structure of one sister and three brothers.

Chosing to give my heroine Alexandra three brothers - David, Hugh and Robin - whom she knew as well as knew herself, whom she relied on and was incredibly close to, was, in my opinion, one of the best decisions that I made in writing the story. It meant that each of them got to be a distinct person, special to Alexandra - and special to me! - in their own way.

Reliable, quiet, intelligent David, quicksilver, charming, funny Hugh, studious, sweet, kind Robin... they're the big brothers I wish were mine (I don't have an older brother - just a younger one, who isn't anything like any of the boys in the story). And hopefully when Alex loses them in The Swan Kingdom the reader is able to fully understand her anguish and her desperation to get them back - not as a Fairytale Princess With A Quest but as a sister who has lost all the family she loved and can never mend her broken heart until she is reunited with the brothers she adores.

I hope that answers your question Imaginatrix! If anyone else has any questions about my books, or writing, or anything else for that matter, just pop them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them here in future posts. See you on Thursday, Dear Readers!

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

SHOULD 13YR OLDS READ 50 SHADES OF GREY?

Today's blog title is the name of the debate that I participated in on Monday on the Radio Four 'You and Yours' programme.

The BBC called Walker Books in the middle of last week, wanting to know if they had an author who would be willing to talk about the issue on air. The other participant in the discussion was to be Tara Benson from Harlequin Mills & Boon (who publish romances worldwide). The PR department at Walker thought of me - well-known as I am for liking to talk on pretty much every much subject - and with a bit of shuffling we managed to arrange everything.

So yesterday I got on a train and went to Lincoln, which was the closest town to me with a BBC studio available, and I was hooked up to a mic and broadcast throughout the country talking about YA novels and why I think that most people (young or old) would be better off readng pretty much anything than 50 Shades of Grey, because it's incredibly badly written, and tedious, and both the main characters are as wooden as the wall of a garden shed, AND it romanticizes a relationship which is extremely dangerous and unhealthy.

I think we had a really great discussion about it, with Tara Benson turning out to be a highly sensible and intelligent lady with lots of good stuff to say, and me managing to get my fifty-pence in as I had been determined I would. You can listen to the debate (and the whole show) through this link.

My bit starts about halfway through, if you want to zip ahead :) Let me know what you think in the comments!
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