The short life and unlamented downfall of *Clean Reader* leads to musings on the reader-author relationship

The short life and unlamented downfall of Clean Reader leads to musings on the reader-author relationship

Blink and you might have missed the kerfuffle. The so-called Clean Reader app offered the chance to read without sullying your precious mind with rude words and profanity by covering them with an alternative deemed acceptable by the app’s creators. However, the backlash from authors including Joanna Harris meant that very rapidly the company was obliged to remove all books from its catalogue. The app seems to still exist (so perhaps my blog headline might be misleading) but I shall watch with interest the developments. I have a feeling we are not done with Clean Reader yet.

There were some excellent explorations about what the existence of such an app means, the best of which was here:

A conversation on Twitter set me to thinking about the relationship between reader and author. The one set out by Joanne Harris is one of dignified mutual respect. Yet another Harris, Charlaine, in fact, author of the True Blood series of books, received death threats over her decision to stop writing the series, and often received very abusive messages when fans disliked the turn a book took. This is the “the emerging transactional relationship many readers are seeking to have with the texts they purchase.” that Remittance Girl writes about so eloquently.

At its best, the dignity of the reader-author relationship that Joanne Harris mentions, is one of fully mature and enlightened adults. It’s one where the author has nothing to fear from readers, and readers can approach a new book by a favourite author and not throw a hissy fit if it is not exactly what they wanted it to be. The other relationship experienced by Charlaine Harris is a blight on the world of the printed word. It makes an author a slave to their readers, afraid and even unable to develop as an author, or explore other genres or techniques.

The realisation has been dawning on me that the power of this transactional relationship (ie someone has paid for a PRODUCT) and therefore demands a product rather than a work of imagination and creativity that does not fit neatly or at all into the box it was believed to have been in (but usually wasn’t) is a pernicious and worrying one. It undermines the integrity and security of a creative artist (author etc) to produce what their (and I hate the term) Muse brings to them. It boils down to this: if I write something that is hated by those who have previously loved my work, the relationship is over because it is seen that I have not provided the “goods” they have paid for. Making literature into a transaction where the buyer believes they have purchased a commodity that conforms to their expressed wishes is a dangerous thing. It means for a start that to survive authors have to tailor their work to the parameters dictated. You could argue that this is precisely what genre fiction already does, but I would disagree. For certain there are a vast ocean of books that could (and perhaps have been) written using a template so that they conform to the genre. However, within these guidelines the authors are free to write whatever tale they want. It’s a discipline, like writing a sonnet. Sonnets have a set number of lines, a required metre and rhyme, and if those are not conformed to, the poem is not a sonnet; within those constraints a poet is able to write about whatever he or she chooses. There is endless freedom within a rigid system.

That isn’t what I mean, though. What I mean is this: an author stops daring to write what wild and crazy and wonderful ideas that come, because they feel sure the backlash from readers will be so devastating it will wipe them out; because they fear the annihilation that comes with plummeting sales, of being dropped by their publisher, of the snide and abusive comments of former fans dripping vitriol.

Learn to love the rain

Learn to love the rain

A chance remark set me thinking. On top of the mess that was International Day of Happiness, it set me thinking quite hard.

On numerous occasions I see friends complaining about the weather. Being British, it’s fair to say we have a lot of weather here and while the variations are quite impressive (the average April day defies logic and even belief, some times) we don’t really get the extremes other countries do and we don’t cope well when our weather goes a bit further than we’re comfortable with. Many, though, express the wish that we could have sunshine all the time. The grey British winter can make the most stalwart of us wish for blue skies and blazing sunshine, but that’s not what I really mean.

In the summer of 1976, I think even the most sun-loving Brits got more than they bargained for. Lawns dried, then died. Hose-pipe bans followed, and further restrictions followed. We were exhorted to save water, “Bath with a friend,” and animal behaviour became affected. A wave of starving ladybirds washed over the country; they had eaten all the greenfly, then because roses were dying for lack of water, the greenfly simple disappeared. I’ve never been bitten by a ladybird since then but they became a pest that summer. I suspect that the drought in the UK was so severe it will show in tree rings.

Rain is essential to life. I live in a land that is damp and while rainfall varies from county to county, it’s safe to say the land as a whole is moist. It needs to be. Crops need water; watching potato fields being automatically watered makes me think that some of our crops might need more help than is wise. The summer of ’76 I watched wheat and barley fail to swell, then dry up and die. Food prices may well have risen that autumn but I was too young to notice.

It’s the same with our internal weather. It’s foolish and unrealistic to aim for wall-to-wall happiness; would you recognise it if you had not experienced the other pole? The International Day of Happiness annoyed me because much of the publicity implied that we can CHOOSE to be happy. This is insulting and damaging especially to those of us affected by mental health issues such as depression. We CAN choose to do things to improve our mood, and we can do many of the things suggested on the literature provided by the official site (acts of kindness to others, positive self talk, treating the self with kindness, exercise and fresh air and so on) but there should not be any implication that these actions and attitudes will result in beaming happiness 24/7.

There was recent research that suggested also that the brains of those suffering with depression retain the feel-good chemicals for much shorter times than the brains of non-depressed people. This would tie in with both observation and experience. A good thing happens, and for some that is enough to keep them feeling good for days; yet for a depressed person, the lift is both less intense and less long lasting. There is also growing evidence that depressed brains work quite differently to non depressed brains in other ways: 

“The study demonstrates that brain regions, collectively known as the default mode network, behave differently in depressed people. The default network typically is active when the mind wanders. It shuts down when an individual focuses on the job at hand. But the researchers found the network stays active in people who are depressed, even when they are concentrating on specific tasks.

The new work suggests individuals with depression may not be able to “lose themselves” in work, music, exercise or other activities that enable most healthy people to get “outside” of themselves.”

In life, there will always be sunshine and showers. Just as we usually accept that without the rain, nothing can live or grow, perhaps it is time to accept also that the metaphorical rain storms have their place and that too much sunshine of either type is damaging.

When it rains, watch, especially in the summer months. See how the earth responds with petrichor and the creatures of the earth rejoice in the falling of rain of dry earth and how things that seemed dry and dying rapidly become green and lush again and how in the days after rainfall, there is a rush of blossoms. Learn to love the rain, whether it falls internally or externally, for both will bring renewal and growth.

A hobbit-style birthday gift

It’s a well-known thing that hobbits give others gifts on their birthday, rather than get them.

Since today is my birthday, I am offering all my novels and my poetry for a reduced price. This is for a very limited time so if you were thinking of grabbing them, now is a good moment.

Happy Birthday to me!

*Cities that never sleep*

Cities that never sleep

Last week I went to Paris.

Whenever I say that the reaction is almost universally, “Lucky you!” and I concede that I am grateful that I get to go but I’ve never quite figured out why people get so excited by cities, however famous, beautiful or supposedly romantic those cities might be.

Since I was heading out on an early Eurostar train, I’d been billeted in a hotel next to Euston station in London. I got there in plenty of time so I had a little walk down to the British Library and down to St Pancras also, before heading back to wash my hair, eat my dinner and get an early night. I’d hoped to find some ear plugs but failed. I regretted it. The window in my room was defective and wouldn’t shut properly. It wasn’t a cold night, but the noise never abated to anything less than a dull roar all night. I got up at around 4.30, unable to snooze more than an hour at a time. It’s not so much the noise as the continuous low level vibration. Everything shakes ever so slightly, ALL THE TIME. I suspect you get used to it if you live there. But for a visitor it was unsettling. I felt all the time as if I were shaking, and it made me more nervous and uneasy.

When I left the hotel at 6am, London seemed to be already in full motion. The night buses had been replaced by the normal day ones, the pavement shook with the rumble of underground trains and the constant passing of traffic. There were more people visible on the streets at that time than I see normally in the course of a week or more. At no point did the city ever seem to sleep.

Paris comes to life at night too. As the sun sets, the lights come on everywhere, and people head out. Going up the Butte of Montmartre for a meal at the artists’ square, it was still quite quiet. By the time we came out to do some sight seeing, the place was heaving. The steps in front of Sacre Coeur were filled by people sitting enjoying the view, the company and a drink or two. Inside the basilica, an oasis of peace and tranquillity, the nuns were about to sing the office of Compline, the last office of the day before sleep. But Paris too never sleeps. Even in our quiet hotel at the edge of the city, traffic thundered past most of the night.

I’ve lived in a couple of cities in the past, sometimes close to the centre, sometimes in the suburbs, and while the amenities and so on are great, I’ll never forget when we first moved to deep countryside, miles from anywhere. We’d brought sleeping bags and a few bits with us, ahead of the removals van, and that first night, without a plate or fork to our name, we walked through fields to get to the next village and the nearest pub to get our dinner. The sun set as we ate, and when we got back out, full of dinner and a few drinks, we headed out confidently to follow the little paths back through the countryside to our new house. Half a mile on, it dawned on me that it was VERY dark indeed. There were no street lights in our village at that time, and the fields and copses were utterly black. Above us, the stars shone like diamonds on a jeweller’s velvet, and a sliver of moon. We found our way home, cautiously, and when we crawled into sleeping bags, and lay down to sleep, I realised that with the window open, it was almost silent. It was quiet enough to hear the wind blowing the half grown wheat in the field behind our house. The sound of owls, and once or twice the guttural cries of foxes, and very, very faintly, the occasional car passing. and then close to dawn, cockerels, were the soundtrack of almost every night after that.

I learned to walk the woods and fields in almost total darkness, using the glimmer of starlight on the tip of my dog’s tail as a guide, or the bright white glow of moonlight. I learned to tell different sounds apart, so that the call of one owl was different to that of another of the same species. I listened to nightingales singing, and heard the huff of distaste when a deer came upon my scent in the middle of the night as I walked alone but for my dog.

Some people are city people. Some people are country people. I wonder if you can guess which I am.


The truth about talent ~ my take on the troublesome topic.

The truth about talent ~ my take on the troublesome topic

There’s been a fair bit floating around lately about whether it is talent or hard work that makes a writer. I’ve read a few posts by people with bigger profiles than mine, and I’ve stayed silent because I think it’s something so heated that it’s too easy to get flamed for having a contradictory opinion.

When I was a child, I really wanted to be musical. I mean, really wanted. My primary school had a small bursary for a limited number of children to learn the cello. They asked first who would like to learn and then all those who said they would like to had a special afternoon test to see if they had any aptitude. A week or so later, it turned out I didn’t. I was extremely upset. My teacher was very kind and explained that no matter how hard I would have worked, I lacked something that was essential to the process. Much later, I understood that this was probably perfect pitch. I just don’t have it. I’m not tone deaf but I don’t have that innate ability to distinguish notes.

As a teenager, I decided to learn classical guitar. One of the music teachers at my secondary school ran a club, and for about four years, I went weekly, and practised daily. With hyper-mobile fingers I was always going to struggle, but I reached a level that was at best, competent. If I enjoyed it, that should have been enough. But for me, it wasn’t. I knew what good playing was, and no matter how hard I worked, I didn’t get there. I knew the difference between my playing and that of someone who had that talent. So when I was twenty one, I gave my guitar away to a university friend and have never played since. I still enjoy classical guitar music but the desire to play is long gone. I’d become aware of how rubbish I was, and how basically cringe-worthy that was.

After I married, we attended a church in Middlesbrough. The usual organist was excellent but among the congregation was a very nice lady who also considered herself musical; on occasions, as token attempt to play hymns more modern than ancient, Una was allowed to play the piano. At first I believed the piano to be at fault. Then I heard Una sing as well. She was completely tone deaf and completely unaware of it. When she played the piano, not only was she hitting as many wrong notes as Les Dawson, her tempo was dreadful and she was incapable of playing anything but forte. It was embarrassing in the extreme. She had no idea at all how bad she was. She’d taken piano lessons from childhood and had practised diligently every single day. But she was still terrible. It didn’t matter that much, and no one came out and told her, basically because she was enjoying her music and while it made us all cringe, she was oblivious. The kicker came later, for something else. She also knitted. One year for the Christmas bazaar, she knitted a vast number of soft toys, from teddies to dollies, and not a single one sold. As you might expect she was very, very upset indeed. But the reason they didn’t sell is they were so badly made that no one would buy one, not even out of solidarity or pity. No one had ever been able to tell her that what she did wasn’t good enough. It was the same with her music. No one could tell her how bad she was. People were reluctant to hurt her feelings by a bit of truth. It took the bazaar to bring home to her that what she had made was not worth paying money for.

When it comes to writing, I think that almost every writer has some talent. It’s a thing of degrees though. To use an example from another discipline, I know that I have some talent at drawing and art in general. It’s the kind of talent where it’s enough to bring me pleasure and self expression and on occasions, perhaps produce something others may admire or possibly even buy. With work and training it could be much more but I know in my heart of hearts, it’s a medium sized talent that could get me exhibitions in local galleries but the Tate is beyond its scope. I also know enough about art to be humble when talking to real artists; I know full well I am an amateur and not in their league.

Talent is an organic thing too, that grows when it is nurtured. Early nurturing of a talent may be crucial. To quote from Philippa Rees’s excellent book Involution, “Would Amadeus, born instead to a putzmadchen, have survived? Or offered man a note? Or too many in desperation?” Where and when we are born, and to whom is crucial too to our development, our discovery and exploration of our talents. My father, born in the 1930s in a not-well-off family (the area he grew up in is now recognised as being the most deprived area in England) , was lucky enough to go to a school that was ahead of its time. A state primary school, it ran what would now be termed a gifted and talented programme that meant he sat his 11+ at the age of nine and passed. His time at a prestigious grammar school gave him a head start in life, even though he started there during World War Two and all the subsequent privations of rationing. My mother also attended a very ancient grammar school, the first of her family to do so. The result of these two parents valuing learning and books meant that I was an early reader and an early writer. Do I have talent? Yes. Not only do I believe that I do, this has been confirmed countless times by people whose job it is to notice talent (agents, editors etc).

Talent alone is not enough. Hard work, determination, persistence, constant learning are all important ingredients in the cake. But without talent being present to a greater or lesser degree, that “cake” won’t rise. It’ll always be a like a pancake, flat and stodgy and in essence, a waste of all those priceless ingredients.

Mama Masha’s Musings: Maria K on Mental Health, BPD and Life.

Today I’d like to introduce my friend Maria K. I met Maria a good few years ago, via Facebook and mutual friends, and she’s always managed to impress me with her strength and determination as well as a kind heart and a kick-ass nature. As you’ll read in her bio at the end of the post, Maria lives in the USA but she didn’t start out there. Her experience of living with a mental health issue that often goes undiagnosed and is often misunderstood, is both inspiring and thought-provoking.

Over to you, Maria:



I wrote this a few years ago and would like to add a couple of things in light of the current political situation.

There were some good things about the existing health care system, but there were also many issues. I don’t think I know a single person who doesn’t have multiple stories of unaffordable medications, inability to see specialists in a prompt manner, being blindsided by bills for surgeries and labwork they were convinced were covered by their insurance.

Mental health is, perhaps, one of the biggest gaps. There is still a broad misunderstanding of what mental illness actually is, and mental patients are frequently dismissed as people with the “bad case of nerves” or “unable to handle stress”. Taking a sick day for a sore throat, a broken leg or an appendectomy is acceptable. But taking a mental health day is considered lame and often earns you a bad reputation with managers and co-workers. At the other extremes, there are entire groups of doctors and patients too quick to issue and accept a mental illness diagnosis, where there shouldn’t be one.

Most insurance companies only cover ten therapy sessions per year. Anyone requiring ongoing attention of a mental health professional will tell you how laughable and pathetic that number is. It often takes up to five sessions just to establish rapport with your therapist. And what if you need therapy every two weeks? Once you have used up your ten sessions, it’s either pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket or endure a multi-month interruption in therapy, which can be a dangerous proposition.

With the constant mergers between the health insurance providers and companies shopping for the cheapest plan possible, a mental patient is at a constant risk of losing his or her therapist due to a change in the network coverage. This actually happened to me – I was very fortunate to find my perfect therapist from the first try (again, both mental health professionals and patients will tell you how rare that is), but I had to give her up after only six months because my employer made a decision to switch to another insurer, who did not cover my therapist. That was eight years ago. I was unable to find a good therapist match ever since.

Having seen this many issues with the mental health aspect of our health care alone, I honestly cannot understand people who say that we did not need a reform and that the system was well enough as it was. What follows is a narrative of the good, the bad, and the weird of being a Borderline.


I always joke that Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a trashcan of mental illnesses. It combines nine symptoms from some of the more prominent mental disorders: a little bit of bi-polar, a little bit of clinical depression, a little bit of social anxiety disorder, a little bit of ADD – but none of the symptoms are pronounced enough for a BPD patient to be diagnosed with any one of those illnesses. So, at some point mental health specialists must have gotten together and decided, “Well, let’s just pile them all into this one group and call this weird mental illness symptom combo thingie Borderline Personality Disorder. Doesn’t that sound cool?!”

Being a BPD patient (also referred to as “a Borderline”) is weird. You get misdiagnosed a lot and sometimes have to go through several therapists and several different medications to figure out what is wrong with you. As with any other mental illness, it’s tough to face the fact that you actually have a problem – primarily because the symptoms are so scattered and not always pronounced. One Borderline cannot always relate to another Borderline, because while you have to have 6 pronounced symptoms out of 9 to be diagnosed with any certainty, they don’t have to be the same 6 symptoms across the board, so a fellow BPD patient might have the same self-destructive tendencies, but not the social anxiety piece.

BPD is a pain in the neck – primarily because of its unpredictability. You never know, which one of your 6 pronounced symptoms (or umpteen combinations thereof) is going to hit you on any given day and how strongly. You might have a mild mood swing or you might have a full-blown “scared out of your mind” panic attack. (I’ve had those in my car in the middle of a highway a few times. It wasn’t fun.) Or you could have two contradictory symptoms acting up on the same day: like your social anxiety and your fear of being alone. Trust me – you do not want to be there!

I think it was the panic attacks and the self-destructive bouts that made me finally give in and try medication. I resisted the thought for a long time, because I thought taking medication would be a sign of weakness. But honestly? I think it was a lot braver to decide not to be miserable on a weekly basis anymore. The last straw came when I had a panic-induced breakdown in the middle of an aikido class in front of my instructor and all my fellow martial arts students. My doctor (the greatest, most wonderful person ever) put me on Lexapro, which is the mildest are pretty much gone. I still have an occasional breakdown, but they happen once every 3-4 months – not once every week.

Interestingly enough, it was Lexapro effectiveness that made me change jobs about a year and a half after I started medicating. I had this very meticulous, detail-oriented boring job, where I got slammed by my boss for having one digit in my documents out of order. The job was so monotonous, that I couldn’t keep my mind focused. I talked to my doctor about it and she suggested that we try shifting to Wellbutrin, which is an ADD drug, to help me stay focused. The problem was – Wellbutrin and Lexapro are mutually exclusive and should not be taken together, so I had to get off Lexapro. That was one of the worst months in my life! Wellbutrin did its job – I managed to stay focused despite the monotonous work I had to do. However, I have lost every positive effect I managed to build up with Lexapro over the previous year and a half. I started having panic attacks again and, worst of all, my self-destructive tendencies also decided to rear their ugly heads. I was so miserable, I cried every morning because I had to go to work and I cried every evening because my work made me even more miserable. Talk about a clear indication that it was time to change jobs! I did change jobs and went back to my trusty Lexapro and to feeling as close to normal as I could ever get.

With some of the uglier portions of BPD under control I am not sure if I would want to get rid of BPD altogether. Not everything about being a Borderline is bad. My mind activity is almost always at top pitch. I can think in 10 different directions at the same time and never lose track of any one of them. In all fairness, having an overactive mind can be troublesome sometimes – it makes one bored quickly when working on only one or two tasks and it’s difficult to settle down when it’s time to go to sleep. Having several things going at once helps in the former case (I usually have a database of some sort going on, an electronic copy of a book I am reading, a couple of e-mails, a trouble-shoot, and either a blog or one of my own books that I’m working on). I haven’t found any cure for the latter – difficulty of shutting down – other than taking half a Melatonin at dinner. I am not fond of pills, but any of the other “getting sleepy” methods just didn’t work for me consistently. [I had since stopped using any sleep medications, opting for natural remedies like Lavender and Valerian root.]

On a positive side, my memory is huge – I remember myself since I was 3 years old and I can recount stories from then till now with details and in color. I am lousy with dates and phone numbers and I do need to have a conversation with a person to remember his or her name for good. At the same time storylines, character names, major scenes and descriptions from hundreds of books I’ve read are not a problem – they are as fresh in my mind today as they were when I first read them.

I do have terrible nightmares, but I also have the most beautiful dreams – 3D, in color, with amazing plot twists. Who needs cable to watch a thrilling spectacle? All I need to do is go to sleep.

My ability to analyze just about anything is really sharp. I work as an analyst (it’s actually my job title), but I always joke that I am not an analyst by trade – I am an analyst by birth. My brain is wired for it. I think in tables and databases, when I need to, and arrive at conclusions so fast that I sometimes get frustrated by other people who don’t get it (I am working on being more tolerant about it).

When I was in grad school at RIT I had to take a couple of mandatory liberal arts courses to fulfill the credit requirements. I took Social Psychology among other things, where we had to do some analysis of various sets of data from public polls. After I have submitted my first summary, our instructor asked my permission to use my homework as an example of proper analysis in other classes. I found it rather amusing, because it must have ticked off a lot of Psychology majors to be shown how to do public data analysis by a Mechanical Engineer.

Yes, BPD is still an illness – there is nothing I can do about that. But when I think about it, I honestly wouldn’t want to give up the always-active brain, the memories, the analytical ability and especially the dreams only to get rid of an occasional day when I feel really, really bad. The black, depressive, self-destructive moments do pass and I am getting better at handling them. So, given I choice, I think I would rather keep on being a Borderline. Wouldn’t you?

Maria K. (the pen name of Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova) is a Russian-Ukrainian immigrant, writer, translator, and blogger, covering a wide range of topics from travel and fashion to politics and social issues. 

Mind of a statistician combined with the creativity of a writer and an artist, and backed up by the in-the-trenches, get-your-hands-dirty engineering training in a real-life manufacturing environment. …All of it is packaged within a woman of unique style, comprehensive education, superior organizational ability, iron-clad discipline and milti-faceted interests. 

A non-fiction and science fiction writer in her own right, Maria is also a prolific translator of less-known works of Russian and Ukrainian literature into English with over thirty original and translated publications. Her most prominent translations include her grandfather Vasily Kuznetsov’s Siege of Leningrad journals titled The Ring of Nine, and Thais of Athens – a historic novel by Ivan Yefremov. Both works quickly made their way into the top 100 Kindle publications in their respective categories and continue attracting consistent interest and acclaim from readers.