Hobbits give others gifts on their birthday, so because I was once (for the purposes of a correspondence that is itself worthy of a story one day) Lobelia Sackville Baggins, I have decided that to commemorate/celebrate my birthday, I’m having a flash sale for 24/48 hours of all my current novels. Each will be under £2, or local equivalent worldwide. The price changes will come in over the next few hours, so grab ’em while they’re low. There’s a page tab for each book at the top of this page, or you can just search in whichever Amazon you use.
Unexpected item in the bagging area ~ oh look it’s a new book!
It’s not unusual for women at the crossroads between childbearing age and the end of that era to produce an unexpected little bundle of joy. In days gone by, I suspect it was a lot more common, even if some of those babies were those of a teenage daughter passed off as Mum’s late addition to the family.
So perhaps a book sneaking out at this time of my life is a similar thing. In this case, though, all the material was there, waiting. Waiting for me to look at it, consider it and then do something brave with it. And believe me it is brave to the point of being foolish, to put out a book of poetry on the themes of doubt and faith and all the grey hinterlands between the two, in a world that cares little for poetry of any ilk. Yet once I began, I couldn’t stop. I have had concerns that this surge in …motivation… might be a manifestation of a manic phase but so far it seems benign and controlled, so perhaps it is that the wheel of life has turned and I am rising, slowly.
Hallowed Hollow is a collection of 40 poems. If I had been canny, I might have marketed it as a book for Lent, but I’m not, so I didn’t. It might make a good non-chocolate Easter gift, though. The poems reflect my journey of doubt and faith, one that spends much of its time in the no-man’s land of being drawn by the numinous but of being repelled by dogma and by the often impossibly clubbish-ness of organised Christianity. I veer towards a panentheism that would have got me burned as a heretic or hanged as witch. They’re poems I am intensely proud of, for what that’s worth, and I am also proud of the fact that I have managed to get them off my hard drive and out into the world.
I’m not intending to release them as a Kindle version, unless by some extraordinary miracle, the print edition is wildly successful. There are reasons for this. The first is aesthetic; as a reader of poetry, I much prefer to have a paper edition. One can flip through, caressing pages, and finding poems as if by magic that speak to you that moment. Reading stolidly through, one by one, is not for me. I jump around. The second reason is that I believe that lovers of poetry tend to be collectors of it, who love to display their books and Hallowed Hollow is (in my humble opinion!) quite, quite lovely in its dove-grey cover with an image of rippling water in a holy well. The third reason is that I cannot construct a table of contents that works interactively. While Accidental Emeralds does not have such a contents page, there are only twenty poems in that collection; it’s no great hardship to scroll through the pages. Poetry does not sell well on Kindle, and it’s pretty depressing to see a volume sitting there, its rankings starting to look not so much like a telephone number as the numerical value of Pi to the nth degree.
I’ve not done a launch for this book, not because I don’t love it but because I do. It will find its readers in its own way, but I’d be very grateful for anyone getting the word out, as well as for reviews as and when folks have read it.
Links to US and UK Amazon pages below.
And then this happened…
It has only taken three years (almost) since the publication of the Kindle version, but finally there is a paperback of Square Peg! I began the process in July 2014 but could not, for some reason, get the wretched thing to work, and it became a bogey-man, haunting me with the failure. Better not to look at it, I felt, and hoped it went away. But folks kept asking me if I were going to do a paperback and I knew it needed doing.
For context, I published the Kindle version only weeks after my operation to remove the parathyroid tumour (the rogue gland formerly known as Dexter). I’d barely got my ducks in a row before the operation; one of the many hideous and insidious effects of the tumour is problems with cognitive function. Memory (especially short term memory) is impaired, as is the ability to learn new skills. I still have odd gaps in my memory from that time, from where my poor beleaguered brain wasn’t able to lay those memories down properly. They’re probably still drifting round distant corridors, looking for the right shelf. Once the gash in my throat had healed, I think it was assumed that everything would go back to normal. However, I had a long climb back to health still to go, because I’d lost a lot of good muscle and stamina, as well as a lot of other issues, some of which may never get better (due to the effects of Joint Hypermobility Syndrome, which I am now sure is a part of Ehler-Danlos Syndrome). So my attempts to get out a paperback of a fairly hefty book were ambitious, to say the least.
It’s done now. The cover is slightly different from the Kindle version, because the lettering at the top was going to be cut off by the process of printing and binding. It looks and feels rather gorgeous, too. There is a sense of having climbed a mountain that had previously defeated me.
Anyway, lots of useful lessons learned (about gutters and so on!) that I have used for two more projects that you’ll hear more about soon. One is a surprise baby, completely unexpected, but in many ways, perfectly timed. That’ll be pretty soon, I think. The other is Little Gidding Girl, which has taken not only steps but leaps and bounds towards getting itself off my hard drive and out into the world to meet you all.
All I need now is for my writing mojo to stage a return or a resurrection and we’re good to go!
The fear of imperfection is a paralysing thing ~ some musings on the process of “settling”
I’ve been stuck so long I thought I might begin to fossilise in the crevice between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps I have. Imagine me stretching and cracking and shedding lots of gravel as I move slowly into the light, a troll restored to pre-dawn mobility. Now to find a bridge to hide under and wait for billy-goats.
Where was I?
A couple of years ago, I started doing a paperback copy of Square Peg. After the first proof copies arrived, I gave up. Analysing it now, I can see why I gave up. It ties in with my love-hate-love-loathe affair with books and especially book-shops. In the last few years I have walked round most bookshops in almost physical pain. Some of the pain is sheer angst and anger that my books will never be on the shelves, but once we get past that little matter, the pain is harder to pin down. Books are exquisite things. Truly. Even if you never open it, a new book is a joy to behold; the paper, the colours, the very scent.. all delightful. But I’ve had a sort of recoil: it’s all too much these days. In a bid to woo (woo, woo!) potential readers, publishers have gone to extraordinary lengths to impress. Shelves and tables in Waterstones are like courtship dances of myriad birds of paradise made paper. They dazzle, they en-trance, they entice… and then I sicken. What about the words inside? The blurbs do the same: blind you with careful and clever constructions, teasing and dancing with your love of intrigue and the promise of losing yourself in another world.
And I find myself withdrawing like an anemone, springing my tentacles back into my being, and feeling oddly stung and put off. I almost yearn for the Zen-like simplicity of the old Penguin classics, Spartan and uncompromising. I don’t buy books very often in person these days; when I do, it’s usually from our very excellent Book Hive in Norwich, or the book shop in Diss, and it’s often non-fiction and often poetry. I am bewildered by the choices on offer, and the creeping sense of being bamboozled into parting with hard earned cash for novels that nearly always leave me disappointed. It’s the same online, too: everywhere you look, someone is flashing you their books, bright, beautifully designed and presented, begging you to take them, take them NOW.
And I knew in my heart of hearts I cannot compete. I cannot compete with those book-birds of paradise gracing the front tables in Waterstones, clad in their wrappers embossed with gold ink and perpetual promise. I cannot compete with the array of books online, perfectly presented, designed, advertised and endorsed to the hilt with a thousand glowing reviews and (because everyone suspects ALL five stars) a smattering of 3s and 2s and a single one star (which we all know is malicious, don’t we?) I cannot make my books look like those; I do not have the resources, either in terms of skills or of money to hire those skills, and so I gave up.
Some might read that and think, buck up, stop whining. To them I would say… well, I won’t say what I would say. It would be rude.
I could not proceed because I could not emulate the perfection on display and so felt I could go no further. When I began publishing, it was OK to be a little home-made about it all. But in the six years since then, everything has become alarmingly “professional”. One is exhorted not to let the side (i.e. other indie writers) down by being less than slick in your quest to be as good as the traditional publishing industry. It’s even made me sometimes wish I actually had a publishing deal so that I could step away from the other side of being a writer. But the memory of how appallingly ill sending in submissions made me in the past, stops me going there again. I’m hanging on to the last shreds of sanity and dignity as it is.
So, today, I tackled that paperback again. I fiddled and messed and waited and fiddled some more, and right now I am waiting for an email saying the cover is approved. It’s not going to look like one of those astonishing book-birds on show in Waterstones, but it looks nice. It works. And moreover, even though I sell very few paperbacks, it needs to be out there, even if no-one ever buys it.
I also wrestled the new book almost to the point of conquering it, and making it ready to start the process of uploading, first to Createspace and a paperback version. There’s a few more bits to do, and I’ve had a very kind offer of some words of praise to put on the back too, from another author I respect greatly (once she’s had a chance to read it and decide whether she does want to endorse it, that is. I’m cool if she decides not to, after all). Little Gidding Girl is all about settling, too, of realising that what you have is pretty damned excellent, and that all the other paths you might have walked may not have been the sunlit, joy-filled ones you imagine them to be.
People speak of “settling” as if it is a bad thing, but it’s not. Sometimes it’s the only way forward, to accept things as they are and work with them, because solid reality is something one can live with, and work on, whereas dreams and moonshine and unrealistic ambitions keep you moon-struck and paralysed. It’s been my fear of imperfection that’s kept me locked in this glacier-like stasis, locked like a flattened mammoth stunned by a wall of ice; the fear of being ridiculed for the odd typo, for less-than-stunning covers, for daring to be a tiny bit rough around the edges and thereby tainting others by my lack of care. Someone, somewhere, will always find a comma out of place and throw the book at a wall. Every traditionally published book I have bought in the last ten years has had at least one little issue, be it typo or rogue apostrophe. In the end, my only way to break out of my crevice in the rock is to admit: I’m not perfect, I’m never going to be perfect and neither are my books.
So. Watch this space.
What I read in 2016
I’m intending to write a post called The Dying Art of Reading but that will take more brain power than I can currently muster, so for the moment, a round-up of my reading last year will have to suffice on the topic of reading.
I keep a notebook of what books I read; some use Goodreads for this but as I hate Goodreads (it’s toxic for authors, for anyone with a thin skin and honestly, it’s data-mined more than anything else for connections between authors and readers). In total I completed reading 78 titles last year, which is slightly less than I thought; that said, I always have a good half dozen books on the go and some I simply don’t finish. More on the DNF topic another time. 34 titles were non-fiction, and some of those were doorstops that took months to get through, chipping away a few pages at a time. One of the first that I bounced my way through was a book called Brilliant Green- the surprising history and science of plant intelligence by Stefano Mancuso. Well written and entertaining too, this book was a joy to read and might change the way you see plants.
I’ve worked my way with glee through a fair chunk of the works of Marie-Louise Von Franz, student, translator, and associate of Carl Jung. Her books on fairy-tales are enthralling and enlightening reading; you can almost pick one at random and be amazed at the extraordinary information inside. In the same vein I read The Black Sun – the alchemy and art of Darkness by Stanton Marlan, and also Monika Wilkman’s The Pregnant Darkness – alchemy and the rebirth of consciousness. Both books explore the darker states of human existence (such as depression and grief) in the light of the ancient art of alchemy. I’m still pondering on my findings, such as they are, but these are excellent books.
Very worth reading too was Change of Life- psychological study of dreams in the menopause by Ann Markovic, and The Owl was a Baker’s Daughter – Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa and the Repressed Feminine by Marion Woodman. Susan Scott’s quirky little book, In Praise of Lilith, Eve and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, was highly enjoyable too; a collection of essays and explorations, it’s a very engaging walk through some complex topics.
In fiction, I sated myself on Ann Cleeves books, gorging on several each from the Shetland and the Vera series, and then going right off them. I did the same with a number of titles by Dennis Wheatley and probably won’t touch either author’s works now for a long while. I might be in danger of doing the same with John Connelly’s Charlie Parker series, but he keeps upping the ante and on to book 6 now, I’m quite hooked. Each book is very different from the last but threads run through all that develop and tantalise. I read a couple of Last Kingdom books by Bernard Cornwell but stalled and will hopefully pick up on the ones I’ve bought but not yet read later in the year. H.Rider Haggard accompanied me on many miles of static bike journeys at the gym… he’s still brilliant to read even with the political incorrectness!
I finally finished Sir Terry Pratchett’s A Slip of the Keyboard; it’s a collection of essays and the like, but it’s painfully poignant to read and I confess I cried. I also read his Unseen Academicals, and cried laughing too.
For work I read a couple of books on Paris (How Paris became Paris by Joan Dejean and The Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne) but since I only did one Paris trip last year, my new-found knowledge has languished and I’ll need to reread them both to refresh my memory!
Some of the very best of the fiction was from indie author Gev Sweeney. Three books from her this year in her extraordinary series of alternative history: Ferial Day, Master Warwick and finally For The Burnable Cities. The Prodigal’s Psalm from last year is an excellent unsettling read too. Alternative history as she writes it mingles Roman, biblical and modern history in an unnervingly accurate exposé of current events. Without giving spoilers, you’d have to read them yourself to get quite how apt the themes are.
There are other books, some I have enjoyed, some not; some I have beta read (and therefore, at this stage cannot comment) but that’s a rough guide to where my reading has led me in 2016. I have not given links, but all books are easy enough to find on Amazon and if not, let me know and I’ll see if I can help.
I’m probably going to do a proper round-up post in a day or two but having watched a very bleak two-parter on TV (an Agatha Christie adaptation) that left me feeling even lower than before, it occurred to me that what I would like to see trending in the new year is literature that comforts. Not schmaltzy, saccharine candy-fluff books that pretend everything is nice and rosy but books that have a strong core of something special, something strong and real and comforting.
One of the books I read this year was Elizabeth Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree. It’s a comfort book, like all of hers I have read so far. It’s not light and fluffy but quite different. It’s about people coping with things that seem intolerable and finding ways to redeem the unredeemable. That’s what I mean about Comfort Books.
In view of this, for the end of this year and for the start of next, I have reduced the price of Away With The Fairies to £1.99 or equivalent worldwide. I’ve had many emails, reviews, letters and messages from readers about this book, on how it’s helped them cope with some very difficult times in their lives.
I’m hoping to have a new book out by Easter, and that too will be a Comfort Book. More information to follow soon.
If you have suggestions for other books we might all enjoy, please share them in the comments.
I thought I’d entertain you with an excerpt from Square Peg, from the Christmas period.
On New Year’s Day, Cathy’s van pulled up outside their house, and by the time Chloe had got to the door, Cathy was on the doorstep. She looked pinched and blue with cold, her layers of brightly coloured clothes apparently inadequate. She ate a huge bowl of pasta, drank a pint of orange juice, spent an hour and a half in the bath and then went and slept for eighteen hours without stirring once. Chloe was starting to worry that she’d died in there when she finally emerged the following afternoon looking much better but still grey with tiredness.
“I don’t think you’re terribly well,” Chloe said, when her sister’s coughing fit came to an end.
“No, I’m not brilliant. Too much sea air,” Cathy said. “And before you ask, I don’t really smoke. Too expensive. I just have the occasional cig when I can. It’s just been so cold; I haven’t managed to shake this last cold off yet.”
“I got you a Christmas present,” Chloe said.
“Christ, I got you guys presents too,” Cathy said. “I totally forgot yesterday. They’re in the van. I’ll go and get them.”
Cathy was coughing again when she came in again.
“I don’t believe in wrapping paper,” she said, and handed them each a small parcel wrapped in brown paper.
Clifford opened his cautiously; the parcel smelled strongly of seaweed. It was a wooden cross, carved out of driftwood. There was no figure on the cross but there was a beautifully carved crown of thorns where the head of Christ would have been.
“This is beautiful,” he said. “Where on earth did you get it?”
Cathy grinned at him.
“The beach,” she said, and it dawned on him that she had created this cross herself.
“It’s fantastic,” he said.
“Not bad for a few evenings with a pocket knife,” Cathy grudgingly admitted. “Go on Chloe, open yours.”
Chloe unwrapped the paper. Inside was a piece of crystal wound around with silver wire so it could be worn as a pendant. At first she thought the crystal was clear quartz, then she saw that there seemed to be another quartz point inside it. She looked at her sister.
“It’s lovely,” she said. “What is it inside it?”
“Itself,” Cathy said. “It’s what they call phantom quartz. The crystal grows; sometimes it stops growing for thousands of years and then starts again. When it starts again, the original point still shows inside the new point. I think tiny specks of dust show where the first point was. I found it in a gift shop; you know, they often have displays of crystals, lots of them in boxes. If you’re patient enough to go through them all, you can sometimes find unusual ones. I was lucky that time. So then I did the wire myself, so you can wear it as a necklace.”
“It’s fantastic,” Chloe said. “Wait a minute while I get a chain and then I can put it on.”
She ran upstairs to their room and brought down a silver chain and threaded the stone onto that, and fastened the necklace round her throat.
“This is for you,” she said, bringing out a big parcel from behind their rather forlorn Christmas tree.
Cathy undid the paper, smoothing it out as she did so. Chloe had gone to the camping supplies shop and bought the best sleeping bag they had, guaranteed to some unimaginably arctic temperature, and a fleece liner that was easy to wash and quick to dry.
“Cor,” breathed Cathy. “I could go to the Antarctic with this. Ta ever so. You’ve no idea how cold I’ve been lately.”
But Chloe had some idea when she saw Cathy’s existing sleeping bag, the following day when Cathy brought it in to put in the washing machine. It had been an excellent bag once, but that was years ago, and it was probably only any use now as a summer bag. She’d been intrigued by Cathy’s van, when Cathy agreed to show her it. It was very neat and clean, but very sparse. Cathy kept her belongings in a series of boxes that she admitted were actually old army ammunition boxes, which she could stack and fasten down in the back with a network of bungees. Her bed was a rolled up length of foam rubber, tied up during the day with another bungee. There were a number of old army blankets too, folded up and stored in one of the ammo boxes; that was obviously how Cathy hadn’t turned into a human ice lolly one of those freezing nights.
“Brilliant present,” Cathy said, stowing it away. “I get scared during the winter, you know, that one morning I won’t wake up.”
That shook Chloe; she hadn’t thought of such things before.
“I’m better off than many,” Cathy said, seeing Chloe’s look of horror. “I’ve got the van for starters. I’ve slept in the odd doorway in the past, but only once at the dead of winter and I was younger then and not on my own. Being homeless stinks in the winter.”
“You don’t have to be homeless,” Chloe said.
“I’m not. The van is my home,” Cathy said. “And I took you at your word about coming here when I needed to. And you’d even got me the best Christmas present I think I’ve had for more years than I can remember, so I know you did really mean it. But you must know I don’t want to settle down, not when there’s so much I can do. This will make life more comfortable,” and she patted the box with the sleeping bag and liner in it. “And I do appreciate your offer, believe me I do. I thought about you two quite a lot recently. That’s why I made the presents.”
“They’re marvellous,” Chloe said, touching the crystal at her throat. “That cross you did for Clifford, you know you’re really talented. Was it you who painted the van?”
Cathy nodded, and then shut the van door on her tiny home.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
“It’s amazing,” Chloe said. “I think it’s lovely. You really are good at art, you know.”
Cathy flushed with pleasure, and then shook her head.
“It’s something I enjoy doing, that’s all,” she said.
“I think you’re brilliant at it,” Chloe said.
There was a brief moment of discomfort between them, until Cathy patted the side of the van, fondly.
“Yeah,” she said. “With this thing, I can never forget where I’ve parked.”
“It’s the first time I’ve ever considered a Transit van as art,” Chloe said. “When we were in Wales in the summer, there was a family turned up at the campsite we were at in two white Transit vans. We called them the White Van Clan, but not where they could hear us. Imagine White Van Man with a family; that was proof positive that the gene pool has a shallow end.”
from Square Peg available in all Amazon stores.