7 things Patrick Ness taught me about writing and parenthood

 

When I heard that Patrick Ness was coming to Birmingham to talk about his new book, The Rest of Just Live Here, I had mixed emotions. As a big fan of his work and an aspiring writer, I was keen to go along, particularly in the wake of his successful campaign to raise funds for refugees. But as a working parent, well, it was a busy week: my 11-year-old has just started big school and now my 14-year-old is in year 10 there is a LOT of homework, so I was tempted to sit this one out. But my 14-year-old son – an avid reader but increasingly reluctant to do uncool things (like be me with me) – was surprisingly keen to attend. So despite the complicated home/work travel arrangements this required, we went along to Waterstones in Birmingham to hear Patrick Ness speak.

And as I listened, I found myself reflecting on not just what it meant to be a writer, but what it means to be a parent to a young adult. Here are the seven things that stayed with me from the warm and funny talk that Patrick Ness gave to a bookshop packed with teenagers:

Whose side are you on?

Before uttering a single word, Patrick Ness walked down the aisle to the back of the room, and asked two young children to sit in the middle so that they could see. It was such a small gesture, but for me it summed up the man and his work. He must have been a bit nervous walking out onto the stage, his mind full of the first words that he would say, but as he looked out across the packed bookshop, he saw the world through the eyes of his audience, and realised that two of them couldn’t see.

Seeing through the eyes of children and young adults was a theme that ran throughout his talk. (He never used this awful do-gooder phrase by the way: his talk was just a great example of show don’t tell). After reading a very funny extract from his new book, he spoke movingly about being a teenager, about what it was like to grow up as a gay boy within a Christian evangelical family. The worst thing that an adult can say to a teenager going through a painful experience, he said is, ‘Don’t worry, it will pass/you’ll grow out of it.’ It doesn’t matter if it is technically ‘true’, he argued, because the real truth is the pain that the teenager feels right now. And it is this search for the truth that drives him as he writes. When writing, he constantly challenges himself: ‘Is this true? Does it feel truthful?’

The young people in the audience (the majority) all nodded as he spoke; I hung my head and pretended to take notes. Because sometimes I am guilty of telling my kids to ‘put things in perspective’; of placing their pain within some kind of hierarchy of what ‘really’ matters. Patrick Ness reminded me that there is no ‘big picture’ for kids: if it hurts, it hurts, and even if we can’t fix it, we shouldn’t dismiss it.

It’s all about tenderness

The empathy that Patrick Ness has for young people infused everything that he said about his new book, The Rest of Just Live Here. He spoke about Mikey the main character as if he were a real person, and when asked about why he had ‘given’ him OCD, he was careful to point out that OCD is not an ‘issue’ or an adjective, and that books should be driven by stories not sermons. You don’t need to write issue-driven stories, he argued, because if you write a story that is real, then everything you care about will be in that story. Patrick Ness then shared with us how he too was once an anxious kid, and that he used to wash his hands so often that his hands bled.

‘And when you have a compulsive or obsessive disorder,’ Patrick Ness said, ‘it really doesn’t help if someone tells you it is stupid to keep washing your hands. In fact, it makes it a whole lot worse. Because the thing is, you know it is stupid: that is what makes you hate yourself so much.’

At this point, I had to try not to cry, as my own son – a very anxious 14-year-old, – nodded vigorously beside me. ‘It is only now I am adult,’ continued Patrick Ness, ‘that I have compassion for my sixteen-year-old self.’ And so The Rest of Us Just Live Here, as well as being a funny book about a kid with OCD who is reluctant to be ‘The Chosen One’, is fundamentally a book about tenderness.

Every choice you make is about voice

‘Every book has a voice,’ said Patrick Ness, ‘and as a writer, every choice that you make is about voice.’ I have been writing for several years now, and I am only just beginning to realise how powerful that simple observation is. Where to set the story, who tells it, what you include/exclude, whether to make it funny or sad, for young or old readers: it is all about voice. I have spent a lot of time this year fretting about my authorial voice, but this morning, as I write amongst the discarded cereal bowls, I am wondering what voice is ringing in my children’s ears as they make their way to school? Somewhere along the line, I have reduced parenting to a series of barked out instructions: brush your teeth/put your shoes on/hurry up or you will miss the bus. As Patrick Ness observed, it is just as extraordinary for a character to say ‘I love you’, as it is for them to save the world.

YA is LA

A young girl in the audience asked Patrick Ness how could she convince her tutor that YA books are as good as the adult literature, and he told a great anecdote about growing up in America. New Yorkers look down on LA, he explained. They are always saying how it lacks this and that, and if they meet anyone from LA, they can’t wait to tell them this. But the thing is, people from LA don’t argue back, because they don’t care. They have the sun, the sea – they have LA, so New York is irrelevant to them. YA literature is so robust right now, argued Patrick Ness, that your tutor is basically New York, and YA is LA.

It made me laugh, but like all the best jokes, what he said was so true. Less funny was the realisation that I am now New York, and my kids are LA.

A book will find it’s way into the right hand – regardless of age/rating

There was a discussion about the age appropriateness of books, and whether (as in New Zealand), they should be rated for content. Patrick Ness spoke passionately and convincingly against this, arguing that we should let children and young adults choose what they want to read. He said that he read The Colour of Purple when he was 13, a book full of abuse and swearing and sex, but also about racism and feminism and love – and yes it shocked and appalled and confused him, but also it moved and excited and educated him. No matter what rules and regulations we set up, he argued, a story usually finds a way of getting to the ‘right’ reader, whilst the ‘wrong’ reader probably never realises that that book ever existed.

As a parent of two avid readers, I am guilty of vacillating between hypocrisy and liberalism. I recently agonised over whether to ‘let’ my 14 year-old read Game of Thrones (I did, and he read the whole series in two months). Patrick Ness’s talk was a passionate reminder that I too read The Colour of Purple aged 13, as well as Stephen King and many other ‘inappropriate’ books, and that I should trust the reader and the story to find each other.

Writing is hard

There were lots of questions about the other books that Patrick Ness has written, particularly the Chaos Walking trilogy and A Monster Calls, and he spoke a bit about his writing process. He writes in long hand, and generally aims to cover three pages of A4 a day, about 1,200 words. The first book of the trilogy came out pretty easy, but the third, he said ‘nearly killed me’. Each book is different, but writing, he said is HARD. At one point, he said ‘writing is never fun,’ but he might have been joking. Maybe being a good writer is a bit like being a good parent: it feels hard when you are doing it, but if you get it right, then your reader (or child) won’t see how difficult it was, they’ll just enjoy the experience you’ve created.

A great book is a thin slice of a wider fictional world

Patrick Ness talked about some of his favourite writers and books. I didn’t catch their names, but the point he was trying to make was that a great book makes you feel that the story you are reading is just a thin slice of a wider fictional world. These authors don’t dump in a load of back story or character history, it’s implied or referenced in passing, creating the impression that the story and the characters are real.

It also reminded me that as my children grow, I am becoming a slimmer slice of their world. Both children now leave the house at 7.30am to catch the bus to far-away schools, where friends and teachers shape their day and their lives. There is a whole back story to their ‘what I did today’ narrative that I will probably never, ever know; they are becoming the authors of their own lives now, and I the avid reader.

I am so glad that we made the effort to see Patrick Ness on a Thursday night in Birmingham. I left feeling inspired, not just about writing, but about being a better person. There is a lot of guff talked about role models for children, but he is an example to us all: from the million dollars he raised for refugees, to the two children he made sure could see the event last night. Patrick Ness’s talk was a powerful reminder that the best writers – and perhaps the best parents – are those who remember what it feels like to be young, and who don’t just tell, but show it.

Nine Lessons in writing, from the FoW15 Conference

This weekend, in between buying school trousers that don’t fit and water bottles that will soon be lost, I attended the Festival of Writing at York. Although I only attended for one of the two and a half days (Saturday), I learned a huge amount from the experience. Some of the lessons were embarrassingly obvious (agents are people – who knew)? But I also picked up some genuinely helpful advice on how best to improve ‘voice’ and plot that I think are worth sharing. I’m sure that others will soon be blogging their pictures and insights from FoW15, but here are the nine lessons I took away with me:

  1. Plot exists to change character

I arrived in York just after ten, knackered from a sleepless night and nervous about my first agent pitch at 11.20am, so I decided to attend Julie Cohen’s workshop on what Pixar movies can teach us about storytelling as a way of filling time. I’d heard she was good, but there was no way I could concentrate on some talk when I had The Big Meeting hanging over me. Or so I thought, because as soon as I’d taken my seat, Julie Cohen tore into a rocket-fuelled performance that honestly made me forget about preparing for my pitch.

Why does plot exist? Julie demanded, before answering: plot exists in order to change character. She then proceeded to demonstrate her point by talking us through the character and plot arc of the film Cars, which is essentially a series of turning points whereby the main character learns something about himself and life, until the thing that he most wants at the start of the film (success) is changed at the end (friends). The talk was so good – so energising, moving and revealing – that I was almost late for my first agent 1:1.

Julie Cohen’s message was reinforced further in Craig Taylor’s lecture Character is Destiny, where he argued that every story has a theme (i.e. love), and that a character’s fatal flaw (i.e. inability to love) should provide the basis for the turning points of the plot as s/he either succeeds or fails to change. Both speakers helped me to clarify and resolve a few character/plot issues I’d been grappling with, and I’d strongly recommend taking a look at the resources the FoW15 team make available to get the benefit of their talks. Also, watch the film Wall-e. In fact don’t just watch it, do what we did with Julie and study the first five minutes and the skill with which story and character unfolds without a single word being spoken: the ultimate in show and tell. There are no huge information dumps or flash backs: Pixar trusts the viewers and Resists The Urge To Explain (RTUTE). I left the workshop humming a tune from Hello Dolly and with Julie Cohen’s challenge ringing in my ears: ‘Your first line should show character’.

2. Find your character’s voice in their shoes

When agents and editors talk about the importance of voice, it usually makes me want to chew my own toes off in frustration, as although most people can’t seem to describe it, ‘they know it when they see it’. But I was lucky enough to talk with Ben Illis, who recommended a brilliant post by Annabel Pitcher (My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece) which explains how she developed the voice of her characters and stayed true to them throughout her novel. Essentially, Annabel Pitcher sat down and thought about what the different voice patterns of each character would be – would they use short sentences, particular phrases etc. and came up with about five for each, stuck them on the wall, and applied them to her characters. As a former method actor, Ben talked passionately about literally wearing a character’s shoes, or finding a hat or a stone or something you can touch as you write to help you be that character. His key bit of advice to me was to do an editorial pass for each main character in my MS to get their individual voices right – crucially resting for a week or so between each one.

Yup, each character. And Resting. Between. Each. One.

That’s one of those golden bits of advice that you both love and hate, because you know he’s right, Goddamn it.

3. There IS a winning formula: write the story that needs to be told

The next panel session I attended was a very lively Q&A with Penny Holroyde, Ben Illis, David Maybury and Julie Churchill on writing for children and YA. The same questions kept coming up from the audience: what’s the ideal word length? What’s the next trend? Is the market for dystopia truly saturated? Should you have swearing in YA books? There was lots of advice on ‘norms’ but for every rule, there was an exception. The session concluded with a plea for writers to write the story that needs to be told. Now, I heard this phrase many times during the day I was there, but what struck me most about this phrase was the genuine passion with which agents urged us – begged us – to write what compels us.

Euan Thorneycroft from AM Heath expanded on this theme when he talked about the role of agents after lunch. Publishing is essentially a gamble, he explained. Your book might tick all the right boxes, but you need a huge amount of luck for a story to take off. In which case, the only thing worth doing is writing from the heart and telling the story that needs to be told.

4. Publishing is a people business – so passion (and pet hates/faves) rules

The YA panel session was a great example of being shown, rather than told, that publishing is a people business. The agents touched and teased and laughed at each other; they often disagreed about word length or genres or swearing, but all of them shared a passion for books and for getting the stories that they care about out there. And because they are people, they have pet favourites (i.e. anything with a Welsh angle) and pet hates (i.e. miserable stories about being shagged behind the back of Allied Carpets). The market may tell them to hunt down more stories about unicorns (yes, wailed David Maybury, fxxxing unicorns), but what agents and publishers really want is to find an MS to fall in love with that they can to go out to bat for.

Euan Thorneycroft said – and I believed him – that the best part of being an agent is going through the slush pile: the exciting possibility that today might be the day that you find that special MS. But all the reading is done out of office hours: during the early or late commute or once the kids have been put to bed, so this business only works because agents are driven by their love and passion for stories

5. Agents are basically trying to remove any reason for a publisher to say no:

Both the YA panel and Euan Thorneycroft explained how a key part of an agent’s job is to look at the MS that they have fallen in love with through the eyes of a reluctant lover, and to basically remove any reason for a publishing house to say no. It’s not that a YA book can’t ever be over 100k, but every single word over 75k is making it easier for someone to say no, so an agent will generally advise you to stay within industry norms. Likewise, dystopia isn’t dead, but there is a sense that there is a glut in the market, so agents will tend to describe it as ‘speculative sci-fi’ – anything to avoid that ‘no’. And it’s not enough for an editor to love your MS, by the way: the sales department need to be convinced that they can sell it, the marketing people need to believe that they can market it and the PR team need to believe that they can publicise it. A ‘no’ from any of these departments and your book simply won’t get published. Hence the attractiveness of unicorns. It also explains why an agent like Euan Thorneycroft will often require 2, 3 or even 6 re-drafts from his clients before he will send it out to a publisher. ‘You only get one shot at a publisher,’ he told us. ‘And a no is a no.’

6. Conferences are worth every penny, BUT pick your agents carefully

There are so many articles and books on ‘how to get published/write a best seller’ but a conference really is the ‘show’ versus the ‘tell’. At a conference like FoW15, you see the ethos and passion of the publishing business in action, and somehow, those simple lessons you have read ten times before finally sink in when an agent sits one foot away from you with your MS in his/her hand.

But a word of warning. If you are going do a 1:1, and/or submit your MS to an agent, then please invest the time and energy in picking the right one for you and your work. I didn’t do this last year (I booked too late to get my ideal choices but went ahead anyway) and I think that’s partly why I didn’t get requests for fulls. This year, I booked early and picked two agents I thought would be genuinely interested in my work, and it made such a difference. Your MS can have a great concept and/or be beautifully written, but if it isn’t ‘right’ for that particular agent, then they aren’t going to fall in love with it; they simply aren’t going to ask you to add to their groaning inboxes. It is so great when you meet an agent who is excited by your work, but I saw again this year how it can knock a writer’s confidence if they have a 1:1 with an agent who simply isn’t right for them.

7. Other writers are lovely but fragile beings

Which links to another key lesson for me: writers are lovely but fragile things. It’s easy enough to swap emoji kisses on twitter, but it turns out writers really are lovely – I spoke to so many people at break times or at the start/finish of lectures. They were mostly short conversations, but they always ended with a genuine and heart felt ‘Good Luck’, and the constant kindness and understanding from strangers was actually quite moving. I think we all felt strengthened by being with others who understand the tortuous business we are in: to talk with people who have been through the same awful cycle of hope and despair, enabling us to come away with the strength to carry on.

8. Agents are people – passionate, empathetic but BUSY – people

As writers, it is so easy to over-think the whole ‘agent’ thing: to think that X is An Agent, rather than a busy mum of four who’s children, like yours, go back to school on Monday, and who has far too many things to read but will stay up way past her bedtime if she finds something she really loves. All the agents I saw were incredibly friendly and generous with their time and advice, not just in the 1:1s but over breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks. They weren’t just attending a conference, they were active members of a community of people who write, find and publish books, and they were all trying to help us be the very best that we can be. Some were extroverts, some were introverts: Ben Illis was taller than his twitter icon suggests, David Maybury was funny and sweary, Jenny Savill wise and watchful and (according to Julie Cohen) Julia Churchill was quite a bad influence. Just like the rest of us, agents are all different, but at York, I could see that they were all once ten-year-olds who read with a torch under the bed, and probably still do.

9. Only send your MS to an agent when it is REALLY ready

When I left York on Saturday evening, I thought that the magical five words I heard from both agents – I’d like to see more – was the most important thing I’d got from the conference. But as the train progressed through the darkening skies to Birmingham, I realised that the second half of that magical sentence was far more important: When It Is Ready.

Jenny Savill says that the number one reason she rejects MS’s is because they simply aren’t ready. And after meeting her and other agents at York, I think my definition of ready has changed. ‘Ready’ doesn’t mean at the end of this week when I have raced through the last 50 pages of my MS and given it a quick read through. It doesn’t mean just fixing all the obvious issues that they picked out in my first two chapters and bashing out a panicky email in case they forget me and my MS. Being ready means absorbing the feedback both agents took the time to give me and applying it to the whole MS. It means getting out the mop and bucket, not the bath wipes. It even means doing an editorial pass on each main character (sigh) with rests in between (Goddamn it).

And even when I think it is ‘ready’, I am going to ask myself some tough questions. Can I imagine sitting across from those very same agents, looking them in the eye, and saying, I heard you. I have removed not just the weaknesses you mentioned, but every possible weakness I can imagine you would spot. I think this is now worthy of your time: more worthy than anything else on your slush pile or TBR. I think you will recognise the landscape that you know more intimately than me; that it will make you shut your door and read the next page and the next until you are dashing out of your office, insisting that others must read this too.

Can I look those agents – those people – in the eye, and truthfully make those claims?

Not yet, but I’m working on it. (With rests in between. Honest).

Finally, I’d just like to thank the organisers of FoW15 who arranged this huge conference with great skill and compassion, and the agents, publishers and writers who made it such a positive, energising experience, and wish everyone who attended the very best of luck.

Blog tour: The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon

Sarah Jasmon Blog Tour

The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon Blog tour.

There are many great things about The Summer of Secrets, but one of the things I love most about this book is just how many conversations it has started, as readers talk about not just the story itself, but their own stories: their own secrets and summers.

The novel is set in the summer of 1983, when sixteen-year-old Helen is saved from the mundanity of her existence when the Bohemian Dovers burst upon the scene. She strikes up an intense friendship with the domineering Victoria, roaming the canals whilst her single dad nurses a beer and pretends to fix up a boat. Whilst the characters and plot will keep you turning the pages, the writing is so skilful that everybody who reads it will find themselves recalling that ‘particular summer feeling, (where) everything was possible, all things within reach’.

I read it as part of the Curtis Brown Book Club, where it provoked powerful observations not just about the characters in the novel, but about our younger selves and the intensity of friendships during the teenage years. The conversations spilled over onto twitter and my timeline filled with intriguing posts about ‘The Summer I Was Sixteen.’ And last week, it inspired a laughter-filled conversation with my seventy-six-year-old dad, as we remembered the summer he bought a canal boat.

Now to understand the significance of that last sentence, you have to understand that we lived on a Council Estate in the middle of Birmingham, and that my dad was an ‘unskilled’ labourer at the time. People like us simply did not own boats. But my dad was never one for following convention, and so one day he came home and announced he had paid five hundred pounds for a canal boat. I wish I knew what on earth my mum said to my dad during that Jack and the Beanstalk moment. We didn’t own a car, we were always in need of shoes and coats, and my dad didn’t always have a job. But now we had a boat.

I must have been about ten at the time, but it’s only now after reading The Summer of Secrets, that I’m beginning to realise what it meant to have a boat. Like Helen’s dad, my dad became obsessed with ‘doing it up’. Weekends were spent ‘going to the boat’ all five of us cycling or walking the seven miles there and the seven miles back, because The Moocher (named after my dad’s love of mooching in second hand shops), always seemed to need painting or cleaning or work of some kind. It didn’t seem to matter that we didn’t go anywhere – the point is that we had the hope that one day we would. I realise now how important this must have been to my dad, an intelligent man working in manual jobs that he hated, and to my mum, a Housewife imprisoned by her home.

I have a vivid memory of one glorious summer holiday: two whole weeks where we travelled from Birmingham to Stratford upon Avon (one week to get there, another to get back – it takes 40 minutes on the train). It was hot enough to burn us, and my elder brother nearly died (twice), but we had a fantastic time, drifting through the English countryside and playing in the idyllic gardens of the canal side pubs. We didn’t get very far – if you measure a journey by the miles on a map – but for me and my family it was a perfect adventure and a total escape.

As we grew older, we visited the boat less and less, until eventually one winter there was so much rain that the boat finally sank to the bottom of the canal. Now it exists only in our memories, and every now and then, we remember those extraordinary years when we – We – had a boat. The Summer of Secrets reminded me so much of that summer, and as is often the case with the very best of literature, allowed me to see my own parents and childhood through fresh eyes.

You can read my five star review of The Summer of Secrets here https://johoganwrites.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/book-reivew-the-summer-of-secrets-by-sarah-jamson/ . I would highly recommend it, for it speaks to something we have all lost and probably still yearn for – our childhood selves and those endless, hope-filled summer days.

Book Review: The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon

The Summer of Secrets: A compelling, emotional summer read for adults and YA

In the summer of 1983, fifteen-year-old Helen, an only child who lives with her neglectful dad, is rescued from the mundanity of her existence when the Dovers burst upon the scene: a Bohemian family who fill their ramshackle cottage by the canal with the scent of faraway lands and their unconventional ways. There are the cute and endearing twins, Pippa and Will, the handsome and elusive Seth, and Victoria: an opinionated, domineering fifteen-year-old girl who quickly becomes Helen’s best and only friend. Sarah Jamson captures perfectly both the never-ending feel of a long hot summer, and the claustrophobic intensity of teenage friendships as Helen tries to unravel the mystery of the Dovers, fearful that they will leave her to her lonely, friendless existence.

The author uses an unusual and effective technique to tell this powerful story, shifting between a past that is told in the third person, and the present told in the first, as the adult Helen struggles to piece together the events of that fateful summer. This technique helps create a sense of building tension and impending tragedy, so that even though the pages are filled with long, languorous days, you turn each page quickly, sensing that something unbearable is about to happen.

Sarah Jasmon is such a skilful writer, that she reminded me what it felt like to be fifteen: that ‘particular summer feeling, (where) everything was possible, all things within reach’. She has an artist’s eye and such a delicate touch with words that she manages to convey how a character is feeling just through the description of a particular bump in the carpet, or a flaw in the wall. I turned down the corners of so many pages of this book because of the skill of certain passages, or the beauty of a particular phrase.

It is hard to say much more without spoiling the plot, but if you love the poignant cover, then I guarantee you will love this book. Although primarily aimed at the adult market, I personally think that this book would appeal to older YA readers, particularly those who enjoyed We Were Liars by e.lockhart which tackles similar themes. It would be a great book to read on holiday, with the sun warming your face and the sound of children in your ears. But make sure you wear sunglasses, so that no one sees your tears.

Book Review: The Musuem of Things Left Behind by Seni Glaister

If you can imagine the plot of Roman Holiday reversed, with the familial feuds of Jean de Florette and the character of Anne of Green Gables tackling the themes of Local Hero, then you may begin to appreciate what a true gem The Museum of Things Left Behind is.

The novel is set within the fictional land of Vallerosa: an idyllic Italian place that is small enough to pass unnoticed by the rest of the world, but large enough to merit its own President. The story starts when Vallerosa’s Postman makes an extraordinary discovery in his postbag: an aerogramme with stamps bearing the profile of Her Majesty the Queen. He pedals breathlessly all the way to Parliament Hall, battling through layers of officialdom so that he might hand such an important communication to the President himself. With great pride and excitement, the President instructs his people to make ‘planned but spontaneous’ preparations for a state visit from a VIP, and he is mortified when off the train steps Lizzie, a British, ruck-sack carrying student.

The scene is set for many comic misunderstandings, and I can’t tell you how many times I laughed whilst reading this delightful book. Seni Glaister has a wry, delicate touch as she describes the two bars in the piazza where the owners and clientele compete for the attention of their beautiful new visitor, and the depiction of public officials in the Parliament Hall are worthy of Yes Minister. But the author does not mock her characters: she describes their weaknesses and naivety with the tenderness of a mother, and bit by bit, challenges the Western notion of progress and development, the concept of power and the role of women in society. When Lizzie offers to do some charitable work – in an orphanage, perhaps – she is met with blank looks: if a child’s parents’ dies, then another family takes them in; if someone has no food, then their neighbour feeds them. There are times when Vellorosa sounds like a European version of the fictional Shangri-La.

But beneath the idyllic veneer, all is not well in Vellerosa. The President has been persuaded that they must engage with the international market by selling their distinctive tea for profit, and he fears that his own people may be turning against him. The arrival of Lizzie starts to change Vellerosa, just as Anne changes the community of Green Gables with her unflinching optimism, common sense and never-ending ideas. Watching Lizzie peel back the layers of Vellerosa and seeing her effect on the people she meets and their effect upon herself, is a genuine joy. My cheeks hurt from smiling by the time I finished the book, leaving me with the warmest of glows and a longing to visit Vallerosa.

I have said rather more about the plot of this book than I usually do in a review, because I am worried that this quiet little gem will get lost amongst some of the noisier hits this year. The blurb on the back of the book is vague, and were it not for the Curtis Brown Book Club, I doubt I would have picked this novel up; I might not have continued past the first chapter or two, which, until your ear tunes into the author’s skilful, gentle humour, can feel a little slow. But I urge you to buy this book, to settle into a deckchair and let the sun warm your skin whilst this book warms your heart.

Oh, and if there are any film makers out there, this would make a truly great film: a quirky, British/European mix of Il Postino and Local Hero, with an unforgettable female protagonist in a mythical land that we will all yearn for.

Heartbeats and Heartbreak

My dad’s heart is about to stop beating. Any minute now, a surgeon will make an incision down the middle of his chest, dividing his breastbone in two, and whilst they replace his narrowed heart valve with that of a pig’s, his own heart will cease to beat for an hour.

An hour.

Sixty minutes when my dad’s body will rely on a heart and lung bypass machine, his own heart still and beat-less.

As a writer, I am always writing about hearts: they are forever thudding, beating or racing with fear, hurting, breaking or flooding with love. And yet, as I sit here in the hospital canteen waiting for the operation to be over, I realise that I do not really know what a heart is.

According to the (very useful) hospital leaflet they gave us, a heart is a pump that is designed to beat spontaneously and regularly throughout our lives. Our hearts beat 60-90 times each minute, a 100,000 times each day and 42 million times each year.

Yet in Western society, the heart is so much more than a biological pump. In our culture, it is the essence of who we are, the repository of all our dreams and desires, our hurts and regrets. Our heart is who we are, the core of our being. So when they stop my dad’s heart, what exactly are they stopping? What will be lost in those missed 5,900 beats? During that pause, where is the 75-year-old man who was once a wood-loving boy; where will the love and grief he bears for my mum actually go?

Hospital re-opens the wound of widowhood, salted by the ghost of visitors past. If my mum was still with us, she would have nagged dad to pack his bag weeks ago, bought crisp new pyjamas, packed plenty of cold drinks and drawn up a list of all his medicines to hand to the staff. She would have given the doctors more information than they needed, and joked with the nurses to keep her husband for as long as they liked. My mum would have been there before he went into theatre, there when he woke up and there for him at home: ‘in sickness and in health’. But what happens when death has parted you, leaving you sick and alone?

My brothers and I are poor substitutes for a wife of 47 years. One of us is always here, but we tip toe awkwardly around the perverse role reversal, unwilling to concede that our father – our once mighty father – is now frail and weak. And whilst we can help and cajole him, any overt nagging or telling crosses the parental borders that my dad still polices.

The operation should take about four hours, so I will soon know whether it has been a success: whether his heart is once more beating, with no complications. I am looking forward to the relief I will feel when it is over, but I doubt it will shift this deep sense of melancholia that weighs upon me now, the longing to curl up somewhere and weep. For I know that even a new heart valve will not ‘fix’ my dad.

Before going into theatre, the doctors asked him some questions:

‘When does your heart hurt?’

‘When I walk up hills’ (All the time, all the time).

‘When does it stop?

‘When I rest.’ (Never).

The operation should relieve the chest pain and breathlessness, but it will not end the loneliness; it will not bring his wife back. And with each beat of his renewed heart, the clock will continue to tick. Time is passing, and age will weary him. Today is a reminder of that brutal fact.

For as the black-bearded giant of my youth grows thinner and smaller, my own boys are growing taller and stronger. One is already inching over me, the youngest about to start secondary school. I am but months away from mornings of buses, blazers and hurried goodbyes. The thought that one day, my own sons will be negotiating their diaries over the bed where I lie, white-haired, thin-legged and unaccountably quiet, makes my own heart salt-sore with grief.

And if I am honest with myself, it is this thought that feeds my tears: the knowledge that even if all goes well, we will have delayed but not defeated Death. With the help of the doctors and nurses, we have done some artful dodging, but He will be back. For as Shakespeare once wrote, ‘The worst is Death, and death will have his day’.

Postscript

My dad’s operation went well, and thanks to the NHS and the incredibly skilled and caring staff, he will be home in the next two days.

The heart will break, but broken, live on.’ Lord Byron.

Don’t Talk to Strangers: how twitter and book bloggers changed my life.

‘Thinking about blogging about the pointlessness of book blogging. Has anyone (except a book blogger), ever bought a book after reading a blog?’

I saw this tweet late last night, and I thought it was a really good question. So even though it was way past my bedtime, I replied yes: since joining at Christmas, twitter has definitely changed what I buy, and that tweets by bloggers are very influential.

The response was an incredulous ‘Really? You buy stuff based on what someone tweets? Seems nuts to me, but each to his or her own’. Later, he added, ‘Twitter is just random noise. Word of mouth is a friend saying ‘buy this’ whilst they look in your eye.’

Our (good-natured) exchange has made me think about what actually makes me buy a book. My mum always told me never to talk to strangers, so why am I not just talking with strangers, but spending money based upon their recommendations?

Twitter has transformed my reading habit. I have always read a couple of books a week, but I would guess that last year, only about 25% of the books I read were from 2014. Over half were probably classics or hand-me-downs from family, with a few hurried purchases in WH Smith as I waited for the train. Buying new books was therefore a hit and miss affair. My colleagues are not bookish people. At work, my reading habit is a known peculiarity, my writing ambitions a deep and embarrassing secret. Before twitter (BT), ‘word of mouth’ for me was a combination of book reviews in papers, the Richard and Judy stickers on covers, the charts in WHS and staff recommendations in Waterstones. This wasn’t a bad system for adult literature – I’ve rarely been let down by a Richard and Judy recommendation – but as Jim @yayeahyeah has observed, the situation for YA is dire. As the mother of a young adult and someone who aspires to write YA, I have always struggled with what to buy next, and, reduced to literally judging books by their covers, I have had to plough through a lot of misses to get to the hits.

Since joining twitter, the book bloggers (who I never knew existed before Christmas), have been a massive influence on my YA purchases, not just for the reviews that they write, but their compilations of favourite books and round ups of competition short lists. At the most basic level, bloggers such as @Yayeahyeah and @ChelleyToy, have drawn my attention to titles that I simply would have missed before. And whilst I don’t know them personally, when several bloggers rave about a book, and those same books end up on competition short lists (that they then blog and tweet about), there is a moment when it stops being ‘random noise’, and becomes digital ‘word of mouth’, switching me from being a passive observer to an active purchaser. Because of these blogs, I have read and enjoyed books like Half Bad by Sally Green, The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig and am about to read the Sin Eater’s Daughter. These are books I probably would have seen on the tables at Waterstones, but it is the passion and excitement of the book bloggers that has made me take them to the till.

I don’t think you need to look someone in the eye to know when someone is genuinely passionate about a book. @Frizbot is a book blogger who is a prolific reader and reviewer, but just this week I almost heard her gasp with emotion on twitter as she read The Last Act of Love by @CathyReadsBooks. It’s not out until July, but I already know I will be buying this book, based upon her response alone.

But it’s not just the book bloggers. Twitter has provided me with a virtual community of writers, readers, publishers and agents who I respect and admire for their judgement and taste. I am not stupid. I can tell the difference between the spammers and the book lovers. And of course, I expect agents to promote their authors – it’s what they’re paid to do. But when Juliet Mushens raves about Only Ever Yours on twitter by Louise O’Neil – an author she doesn’t even represent – then even before it starts winning awards, you know that this book is special.

And then there are people like me: readers who write, people who have no paid or professional role, but just love books. I have pre-ordered Letters to the Lost by @Iona_Grey largely because of @debrabrown and her powerful response to this beautiful looking book, and also Seed by @LisaHeathfield, because it blew @ldlapinski away. Thanks to twitter, I am the member of a virtual book club – @CBBookGroup – which has exposed me to stunning debut authors such as @jameshannah, author of The A-Z of You and Me and The Ship, by @antonia_writes.

Sometimes I buy a book just because I like the author on twitter. For example, after reading lots of useful articles and links by @hannahbeckerman, I thought it was about time I read her book, The Dead Wife’s Handbook, so I bought (and loved) it. Some of the most beautiful things I have ever read have been @HayleyBooks 140 character tweets, so how could her book, Jar Baby, be anything other than brilliant?

I did the same for @whatSFsaid, whom I initially followed because of his untiring passion for MG and YA literature. My ten-year-old adored his book Varjak Paw, and I found myself using twitter to feed his growing reading habit. The twitter responses he has since had from authors such as @redbreastedbird (Arsenic for Tea) and @moontrug (The Dream Snatcher) has really helped expand and build his love of reading. I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to buy the books that I want. I work full time and write at night, so with two young sons and a neglected house and partner, my main constraint is the time to read what I’ve bought. I am always conscious of the fact that time spent with one book is time lost to another; that time spent reading is time that I am not writing. But every book I have bought this year based upon a recommendation of a blogger or tweeter has been brilliant.

Maybe these books would have eventually filtered their way through the WHS charts and book reviews to reach me. Maybe the adult novels at least. But I would never have discovered all the great YA and MG reads I have enjoyed this year without twitter, the bloggers and the virtual community of book lovers. Twitter has provided me with access to a writing community of intelligent and passionate people, who have democratised and enriched my reading experience.

The book bloggers are at the forefront of this writing community: they are up there in the Crow’s Nest, letting us know when a literary storm is heading our way. I am so grateful for the time and passion that they devote to spreading the word about books that they love, because for those of us not fortunate enough to work or mix in literary circles, they are our ‘word of mouth’. If I ever got the chance to look them in the eye, I would say just two words:

Thank you.

Surprised by a jumper: on being motherless on Mother’s Day

Wordsworth wrote about the loss of his three-year-old daughter in his poem, Surprised by Joy. In it, he captures both the joy and pain of remembrance: that moment when you see something – in his case a field of daffodils – and upon turning to share it, you realise once more that they are gone.

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind

I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom

I thought of this poem when I was in Marks & Spencer’s today, inspired not by their daffodils, but their jumper collection. You see, my mum was very particular about jumpers. She refused to wear a V-neck or a roll neck, and she had strict specifications about the depth of the round neck she favoured and the shades of colours she would wear. She didn’t like buttons, zips or padding; patterns were out, and her alchemic knowledge of wool/cotton/vicose mixes was second to none. She belonged to a generation that believed in following washing machine instructions to the letter, and the dreaded ‘hand wash only’ sign might just as well have said ‘radioactive’.

Against all odds, today I saw a potential candidate. Today I thought, ‘Oh, Mum would like that jumper,’ only to remember that now I need to insert the past tense; now I need to say, ‘Mum would have liked that jumper’. Now, there is no point picking it up and checking the washing label. Now I, along with a (previously invisible to me) sizeable proportion of the population, have to blink and walk past the jumpers, leaving others to buy the flowers and chocolates.

My mum needed a lot of jumpers. When she was first diagnosed with cancer, the chemotherapy made her anaemic, so she was cold all of the time. And as she got thinner, the jumpers grew smaller. Then after a near-death experience with C-difficile, she gradually got better, and she began to eat with a passion, as if food and flesh might provide a defence against future invasion. The jumpers gradually grew in size, until five years later, the cancer finally returned. Then the jumpers diminished along with her health, until in the end, she could tolerate only the softest of cardigans draped about her frail, failing body.

So it’s been a funny old week, bookended by International Women’s Day at one end and Mother’s Day at the other. Both have made me think of what my mum meant to me, and how I could and should have been a better daughter. My mum wasn’t a ‘strong’ woman, as defined by ‘kick-ass’ heroines. She was what used to be called ‘a house wife’, which meant that she had no life other than to look after my dad and three children. She wasn’t a saint: she was often frustrated and angry and – I realise now – sometimes depressed. But she always put us and our needs before her own; her love was constant and unconditional. I was so busy making sure that I didn’t ‘end up like my mum’, that it wasn’t until I had my own children that I recognised and valued what she did.

Ours was a traditional, British working class family, which meant that we called a spade a spade – unless discussing emotions – in which case it became a spoon, and we coughed and moved on. So I never told her what I am telling you now. I meant to; I was desperate to make up for those terrible teenage years when I did nothing but drip contempt around the house that was her prison. But somehow it all just seemed too cheesy, too Hollywood. So instead, we spent the last few weeks sitting on her bed watching Deal or No Deal together, Noel Edmonds being one of the few things that still met with her approval.

Yet I wanted my mum to know that her life was not in vain: that she was not, as she sometimes said, ‘a failure’. So, coward that I am, I wrote her a letter. It seemed pretentious to include a quote from George Eliot, a novelist she had never read, but in the end, I decided to include it, because it was the perfect description of my mum:

“the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Middlemarch

I gave her the letter, but she didn’t open it. Right up to the end, my mum didn’t want to die, and refused to speak about her funeral or anything to do with death. So the letter I had agonised over was left on the bedside table whilst we watched another episode of Deal or No Deal. She died less than a week later.

My dad tells me that she did read my letter, that she showed it him and wept. I cannot be sure, but I hope that she did. More importantly, I hope that she recognised and believed what I wrote about her, and forgave me for sometimes falling short of those words.

Despite her absence, I don’t think I’ll be too sad this Sunday. I am lucky enough to be the recipient of gifts from my own two boys, so the cycle goes on. The youngest still looks at me with Oliver Twist eyes, promising to do anything for me (whilst eating most of my chocolates).The oldest is betwixt and between, fading rapidly into the future, but for the moment, still mine.

I wince at the heavy-handed emails and adverts for Mother’s Day, and pity those whose loss is still unbearably raw. But if you are fortunate enough to still have your mum with you, then use this silly, over-commercialised weekend as an excuse to treat her. Take her out: listen to her – talk to her – whilst you still can. And if your family’s not the talking kind, buy a great big basket and fill it with her favourite food, drink, DVDs and books.

And maybe – if you can find the right one – perhaps even a jumper.

Surprised by Joy

By William Wordsworth 1770–1850 William Wordsworth

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind

I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom

But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,

That spot which no vicissitude can find?

Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—

But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,

Even for the least division of an hour,

Have I been so beguiled as to be blind

To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return

Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,

Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,

Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;

That neither present time, nor years unborn

Could to my sight that heavenly face restore

On losing my boys to books: confessions of a conflicted mother

World Book Day inspired some great articles this week on how wonderful it is to see children ‘lose’ themselves in books. As a former child myself, I couldn’t agree more, but as a mother of two growing boys, I have a more complicated response. A huge part of me is so proud of my book-loving boys: I am glad that they’re equipped with the empathy and imagination that they will need to be happy human beings, and relieved that we have something so vital in common.

But there is a smaller, narrower, more fragile part of me that is saddened to see my boys falling deeper in love with stories, because each book that they read represents yet another step towards independence, and a step away from me. I hadn’t noticed, let alone admitted to having such ignoble feelings before, but this has been a funny old week: my ten-year-old son found out which secondary school he will be going to in September, and, coincidently, he also achieved ‘free reader’ status at school. This means that he can now read whichever book he likes, rather than the dead-hand summaries of ‘children’s classics’ he has been dragging back and forth in his school bag for years.

The effect on his reading has been dramatic. This week alone, this so-called ‘reluctant’ reader has finished three books, and, crucially, he has read a good chunk of them at school without me. So although I began the week reading out Varjak Paw the Outlaw by SF Said, he finished it in one gulp whilst I was talking to his granddad. We then began Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens, which was a pleasure to read out-loud, but I came home on Tuesday night to discover he had already finished it, so I will never know ‘whodunnit’. We chose Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone next, but as we only managed to read two chapters together before that too was finished, I have only a fleeting sense of why he enjoyed it so much.

Of course, I am thankful and relieved that my ten-year-old is – at last – reading by himself. Not just because I no longer have to read the Hungry Bloody Caterpillar again, but because I can see that all of that reading and re-reading – sometimes through gritted teeth – has finally paid off. But I wish I could feel the complete and utter joy expressed so beautifully by @HayleyBooks at the sight of my child getting lost in books. (Read her moving tweets here: https://tinyurl.com/q543slv )

The sad truth is that I miss being inside his head. I miss knowing whether a particular scene made him laugh or cry, whether he was bored by a long sentence or intrigued by a new word. Reading a book with a child is the mental equivalent of having a good old rummage around in their nappies. When we read a book together, I can see the direct effect of whatever stories they are consuming upon their mental digestive processes: I can coax them with something salty when they’re feeling a bit peckish, offer comfort books when they are ill or something more substantial for growing appetites.

I am aware that my response is further evidence – should it ever be needed – of my Control Freak tendencies. Avid readers of my blog will recall that I have written about this before (and for those who weren’t paying attention, you can read my full confession here http://tinyurl.com/kf6j72h )

My personality is certainly part of the problem, but it is not the complete story. You see, I have been here before. I have another fourteen-year-old son, so I know that once children start reading for themselves, they soon start choosing for themselves. They follow not just my parental judgement, but the tantalising crumbs so cleverly laid out by agents and authors such as @lizzykremer. (Read her lovely post on this here: http://tinyurl.com/lq8vctn ). And those crumbs lead them deeper into the forest, leaving aging mothers like myself breathlessly trying to catch up, calling out to their disappearing figures as they weave between the trees and the light.

Like all teenagers, my fourteen-year-old son returns home each night for food and water, but all I know of his life is what he chooses to tell me. Secondary school is a far and distant place that he shares with children and parents unknown, a bus journey and a whole universe away. Just as with books, I can no longer watch his face at the school gates: I cannot observe whom he flinches from or warms to; I cannot speak to his teachers or compare notes with the mothers of friends. He is becoming a person, an individual: separate and distinct from me.

I have seen the tea towels: I know that love is proved in the letting go. And perhaps next week, I will able to sign up to this philosophy. Perhaps next week, I will recall that people in forests usually walk around in circles, and comfort myself that books will eventually bring my boys back to me, just as books are now the bridge that connects my 75-year-old dad and my children to each other.

But not this week.

This week – the week when my ten-year-old boy finally became a free reader and found out which ‘big’ school he will be going to – this week, I will indulge my self-pity. And as my son loses himself in books, I will grieve for what I have lost.

Varjak Paw: A review by my 10yo son

My son started reading book two of the Varjak Paw series at 2pm today, and by 4pm, he had finished, with a satisfied grin on his face. Now, if my 14yo had done, this, I wouldn’t have mentioned it. My eldest son is a voracious reader who would read walking down the street if I let him. But my 10yo is what is more commonly (and ignorantly, in my view) called a ‘reluctant’ reader; that is, he quite rightly, asks a book to earn its demand upon his precious time. He has Roblox, Minecraft and Dragonballz to play, homework to do, Lego to build and videos to create. For a book to hold his interest at bedtime is one thing; to make a call on his daylight hours is a big ask. But against all odds, Varjak Paw by SF Said joins the Hall of Fame, becoming the fourth book that my 10yo son read in DAYLIGHT. But enough from me. I asked my 10yo why he liked the Varjak Paw books so much, and this is what he said:
‘I loved Varjak Paw because it’s about animals, marital arts and adventure. Varjak Paw is a Mesopatamian cat, who in book one lives with his family as a pet. But when two black cats kill an elder of the Paw family, Varjak draws on the ancient tales of Jalal Paw and The Way (an ancient martial arts practice) in an effort to save his family. But to save his family, Varjak has to go into the outside world and gain the trust of dogs, helped by his new cat friends Holly and Tam. But with gangs all around, he realises that the outside world is not all it seems from the inside. I loved this book because it was thrilling and gave the animals the emotions of humans.
‘In Book 2, Varjak Paw has to learn the 7 parts of The Way form Jalal the Paw, and take on the ultimate enemy, Sally Bones, the leader of the gangs who is out to destroy Varjak. Once again, Varjak unites with his trusted cat friends Holly, Tam, and Cludge the dog. But can he destroy the evil Sally Bones and her hold on the city? I loved this book because it is exciting from the first page to the last’.
Ordinarily, I would give a parental view at this stage, but my son read it so quick, that I didn’t get a look in. According to my 10yo, this book is suitable for 8-13 year-olds, and imaginative adults. In fact, he has today given both books today to his 75-year-old granddad to read, as they like to share and talk about the books that they love. Both books are short, beautifully illustrated, and should appeal to those mythical ‘reluctant’ readers, who just need interesting characters in exciting situations to engage them: the Varjak Paw series fits the bill perfectly. My child’s only complaint is where is the next one?