What I’ve read in October (so far)

WP_20161022_09_01_33_Pro.jpgApparently, my camera decided that Saturday morning is a poor time to actually focus on things.

A Head Full OF Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

I had hell and all problems trying to get a hold of this book – at the time of purchase it seemed in quite scarce supply in the UK, but I’d heard so many good things about it I couldn’t pass up the opportunity (god bless the second-hand booksellers on Amazon.) This is a genuinely unsettling and uncomfortable take on the Exorcist mythos, and touches on something that only occurred to me as an adult: the exploitation of a young and vulnerable woman (and it does not shy away, however skin-crawling the result, from the suggestion of sexual exploitation either.) Marjorie steps into Regan’s shoes, and the narrator – her younger sister Merry – is increasingly uncertain whether Marjorie is ill, or involved in an elaborate deception at the expense of their fraught and terrified parents. The extra layer of exploitation via the ‘reality television show’ brings the Exorcist mythos into the present day, and plays with the way we ultimately use and discard vulnerable people for our own voyeuristic entertainment. There is a strong undercurrent of sorrow beneath all the fear and panic, which elevates the narrative.

Hell’s Ditch by Simon Bestwick

Technically, I read this in September, so I am cheating a little bit here, but it would be remiss of me not to mention it since it is very good. Set in a resolutely dystopian future Britain, the story revolved around Helen Damnation, a woman simultaneously haunted by her own failures and determined to seek revenge. Helen averts my most hated ‘Strong Female Character’ cliche in that she is obviously flawed, and those flaws inform her decisions throughout the narrative. Fighting alongside her is a motley crew of old allies and newer, younger recruits; the latter serve as a lens through which the reader is able to understand the grim reality of this new Britain; the way they relate to the older characters, who remember something of the world before, is at times quite heartbreaking. And then there’s Gevaudan Shoal…

The compelling characters and chillingly believable glimpse into a cold, unfriendly future make Hell’s Ditch a darn sight better than your average post-apocalyptic romp.

Within The Wind, Beneath The Snow by Ray Cluley

Much like ‘A Head Full Of Ghosts’, I’ve been trying to get hold of this book for a ridiculous length of time. Luckily enough, it was released at Fantasycon by Snowbooks, along with a bunch of other excellent novellas.

I actually read this twice – once as a standalone experience, to get the proper measure of the book. The second time, I read it alongside a soundtrack of Sigur Rós songs (inspired by the author, who told me he’d written the novella whilst listening to Sigur Rós)

While Sigur Rós undoubtedly add something to the experience, it’s abundantly clear that the atmospheric heavy lifting is down to Cluley alone. The sense of utter isolation, the cold and alien land Gjerta inhabits – both corporeally and emotionally – is powerfully evoked. The story cuts between Gjerta’s childhood, affected irrevocably by the apparent suicide of her mother, and the present day; the lonely and inhospitable wilds of Greenland, the crushing pressure of constant darkness and the strange and terrifying darkteeth, which have haunted Gjerta since childhood. It’s a short read, but thoroughly absorbing and eerily beautiful.

The Race by Nina Allan

I’ve held off reviewing this because I honestly don’t know how to collate my feelings about it into a coherent piece of writing. Suffice to say, it’s an absolute triumph of a book. An interweaving of several stories connected, on the surface, by the thinnest of threads. But beneath the superficial similarities it’s clear that what they share is the same narrative heart, the same central questions asked: what is the nature of identity, and in what way can we be said to exist outside of the perceptions of others? By what measure do we define family, and what do we owe them? It’s a narrative which questions narratives, the stories we write for ourselves and others, the realities we decide upon when we come to know and understand another person.

It’s also about fiction, and the way it so frequently intersects with reality: the layers in every story ever told, which peel back and reveal the truths contained within. And there are so many clever ideas beneath the metafiction: genetically engineered racing greyhounds who form a symbiotic relationship with their ‘runner’, a London viewed through a slightly skewed lens, recognisable but tangibly different. I’m rambling, but that’s only because I can’t really find the words to recommend this enough. Just do yourself a favour and read it.


a brief word on fantasycon


I’m not going to do a long post naming names and all that like I did last year – partly for fear of forgetting people, and partly because I’m still zonked and energy is a precious commodity (but you all know who you are, I hope!)

Suffice to say, Fantasycon by the Sea was a wonderful three days spent in the company of clever, talented, hardworking, accommodating, supportive, friendly, [insert gushing adjective here] people. I spent time nattering with (or probably at – sorry!) familiar faces and said hello to a host of brilliant new people. I am honoured to call them my peers, and in some lucky cases, my friends. (And I thank all of them for not laughing at my ludicrous hobbling.)

I will mention two names: firstly, Paul Feeney, who sadly did not attend, but without whose kindness and generosity I might not have made the event. Thank you, Paul, you are a total gentleman. And the British Fantasy Award-winning Priya Sharma, whose success is really the cherry on the cake, the highlight of an already fantastic weekend – there is honestly no more deserving, talented and wonderful individual, and I’m overjoyed to see her get the recognition she deserves.

Thanks for the smiles, the laughs, the riveting conversations. Thanks for accommodating me and my nervous hurricane of constant verbal nonsense. Thanks for everything.

fantasycon & the onion of joy

Fantasycon is almost upon us, and as I frantically attempt to get my game face on, I realise I’ve not amassed any kind of a schedule or plan as to where I’ll be at any given time. The only place I’m guaranteed to be is at the launch for Great British Horror 1: Green and Pleasant Land, which is on Saturday at 1pm.

The rest of the time I will likely be wandering around, possibly confused, almost certainly staring vacantly at the walls. Do not be alarmed. This is my natural state. Come and say hello if you like, I am a gentle sort.

Outside of Fantasycon, I am embarking on a small Twitter-based project: The Good News Onion, in which I post good news & inspirational stories from around the world. There is altogether too much negative news in circulation, and I genuinely believe it contributes to anxiety, depression and a general sense of malaise with the world as it is today. But I also believe that the world is a fundamentally good place: so, the Good News Onion, which is a means of trying to prove that not everything is terrible. You can follow me at @onionofjoy.

Lessons learned from being 20-something

I turned 30 a few weeks ago.

It doesn’t actually feel any different from being 29. Or 27. Or 25, which I think is where I stopped counting in my head. I felt no fearful anticipation at hitting this milestone, no existential terror, though I know a great many 20-somethings do. If anything, it was welcome: so much of my 20’s was a confusing, cobbled-together mess that 30 seemed like a nice, clean  number at which I might get my proverbial shit together.

I don’t feel significantly wiser now than I did at 25, or more mature, or better at Being An Adult. But when I look back at myself as I was in my early 20’s, I cringe a little at the sort of person I was – the sort of things I held as absolute truths. And if I could go back and teach myself a couple of important things, perhaps my early 20’s might have been a little less messy.

For example:

1.Your plans for your life probably won’t happen the way you think they will. And that’s actually not a bad thing. Making plans in your 20’s, for most people, is a bullshit activity – that’s not to say you can’t do it, and that none of your ideas will come to fruition. But certainly when I was 21-22 I did not yet appreciate life’s capacity for getting in the way and fucking everything up.

  • “I want to get my PGCE after I graduate and teach English!” – er, oops. Turns out you need a C-grade in GCSE maths. Which you don’t have. Not even close. So that degree you just completed? (Well done on that, by the way.) It’s actually largely meaningless in terms of employment. Have fun with that +£30k debt, though!
  • “Okay, well maybe I can go into publishing then?” – Ah, I’ve got bad news. See, you know how you had to work almost full-time during uni, which meant you couldn’t do a work placement? Well, it’s really difficult to get into publishing without experience, and ‘I worked at WHSmith selling books’ doesn’t really count. Also, you should have done that ‘Editing and Publishing’ module instead of the video workshop. Just saying.
  • “I’m going to save up and buy my own place once I leave uni!” – Well, you do get to do this, and it’s great for about a year. Then the economy crashes, and your financial situation goes to shit, as does that of your in-laws, necessitating the sale of your flat & 5 years living with said in-laws so you can all survive financially. (This one works out okay in the end, just about – you get to start again at 29. Not so bad, right?)

The fact is, ‘things not going to plan’ doesn’t equate to ‘my life is utterly ruined’, though the 20-something psyche often interprets it that way. You’re still starting out. It’s okay to have to stop for directions sometimes.

2. Be nicer to people. But also, be nicer to yourself. ‘Taking no shit’ should sometimes be tempered with ‘…but do no harm’. It’s tempting, after all you went through as a teenager, to take no prisoners and push with great force against every negative influence in your life. And sometimes, this is a good and healthy thing. But sometimes, you throw the baby out with the bathwater, and you can’t repair that. Someone you perceive to be attacking you might just be communicating ineffectively. There is a middle ground, and sometimes it’s the best place to be. (That said, some people are just arseholes, and you’ll lose nothing by cutting them out ASAP.)

…but while we’re being kinder to other people, allow yourself the same privilege. Self-care is not selfish.

3. You will fail. It’s not personal. There are jobs you won’t get, chances you’ll miss out on. Here’s a secret: these things are not finite. There are other jobs, and other chances. Nurse your bruise, but only for a little while. Dwelling on the unfairness of it all is a waste of energy, because you can’t change that. Better to get up, dust yourself down and try again. (Spoiler: you will eventually succeed.)

4. Start writing short stories earlier. You’ll like it. A novel is not the only medium.

5. Moisturise. It’ll save you a lot of bad-skin angst in your late 20’s. By the way, you get crow’s feet at 28. Try not to freak out.

6. You are not always right. It’s okay to back down. Sometimes, it’s necessary to save your sanity. Be open to other points of view, and consider that you might be taking yours too far. (But don’t let anyone tell you it’s bad to have strong opinions.)

7. Shave your head. Just do it. It actually looks great.

8. Don’t be afraid of other people. Go to conventions. Talk to other writers, chat with editors. Make contacts. Sometimes, ‘who you know’ will take you further than what you know. But more than that, it’s actually quite reassuring to be a part of a community.

9. The source of your joint pain is still a mystery aged 30. It sucks. But: take less ibruprofen (stomach ulcers are not fun) and USE YOUR STICK MORE. Yes, people will stare. But you’ll spend fewer days gritting your teeth every time you have to stand for more than three minutes on the trot.

10. Reply to texts and emails on time. It’s just polite.

11. All those things you want to do before you’re 30? You won’t get to. It doesn’t matter. The gate doesn’t mysteriously close once your 30th rolls around. (Except for Club 18-30 holidays – but honestly, do you really want to be a part of that?)


a love letter to impostors everywhere

I’m an impostor. At least, I perceive myself to be: I am a fraud, a know-nothing, a talentless buffoon who wrote a story people liked and have cruised by on their goodwill ever since.

Is this true? Possibly, possibly not. My brain choruses YES at a deafening volume: yes, you’re going to get found out any day now. Your mediocrity is the world’s worst-kept secret. You are the emperor, cavorting naked while everyone politely averts their gaze. (I think I had a nightmare like that once.)

This actually has a name. It’s called ‘Impostor Syndrome‘. It affects all kinds of people, but seems especially prevalent among creative people, and especially prevalent among female creatives. Wikipedia describes it quite succinctly:

Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be

I happened upon this recently, when reading an article about writers & procrastination – frustrated by my own apparent inability, over the course of four days off work, to knuckle down and write more than 300 words in a day. And not only that, but two instances in which I have had ample time to hit a deadline, but have found myself with three weeks to go, frantically bashing out a short story I have had fully-formed in my head for a month or longer. Why do I do this to myself, I wondered? Is it some kind of executive dysfunction, or am I just lazy and badly disciplined?

(Well. I think there is certainly an element of the latter.)

But a quote from the Atlantic article put some things into stark perspective for me:

Most writers manage to get by because, as the deadline creeps closer, their fears of turning in nothing eventually surpasses their fears of turning in something terrible. But I’ve watched a surprising number of young journalists wreck, or nearly wreck, their careers by simply failing to hand in articles. These are all college graduates who can write in complete sentences, so it is not that they are lazy incompetents. Rather, they seem to be paralyzed by the prospect of writing something that isn’t very good.

So far, my fear of disappointing people is winning out over my fear of writing a pile of unreadable garbage. In the war of my many neuroses, I’m treating this as a win.

It strikes me, though, how many people I know who feel the same way, and not just writers but artists, videogame creators, musicians. For every confident, self-assured creative I know there are two more hiding in the corner, tearing their hair out for myriad reasons: other people are making better games than me. Other people’s art is more popular than mine. Other people write faster, better, produce more. Other people’s songs are cleverer, catchier. Or, if comparison isn’t a factor – and it isn’t always: my stories are objectively poor and I’ve just been lucky so far. My art doesn’t look the way I wish it did. Nobody is interested in the game I’m making and therefore it must be awful.

(And yes, I would say that the vast majority of these people happen to be women.)

There are hundreds of reasons for these outcomes, but we see just one: a big red arrow pointing down at us, the creator. The words ‘loser’ may or may not be spray painted on our foreheads. It’s an optional extra. And what’s interesting is how hard we work to negate any successes or kind words that might work to counter our perceptions; it’s as though we have an internal filter sifting out all the gold nuggets and ensuring that our attention is focused solely on the piles of mulch. Who cares that you’ve been published X times, or that a piece of your artwork got thousands of likes/reblogs on Tumblr, or that someone looked at the progress shots of your indie game and said ‘this looks awesome’. Who cares about any of that? It was luck, it was a fluke.And even if it wasn’t – even if that award nomination/sale/good review was legit – it doesn’t matter, because you’ll never produce anything of that quality ever again. The future is one failure after another. You’ll be the literary equivalent of that person who turns up to parties – the one nobody really likes but entertains anyway because they all feel a bit sorry for them. You know the one.

This is cognitive distortion. It’s a form of disordered thinking common in OCD and anxiety disorders (as I learned in therapy)  – and when I look at the list of cognitive distortions I come to understand how similar impostor syndrome is to my own diagnosed disorders:


The same lessons I learned in dealing with my anxiety and OCD can be applied to this as well. Disorders which deal in the illogical require proof in retaliation: when we say “I am a bad writer”, we owe it to ourselves to look at all the evidence and come to a balanced conclusion. Instinct and gut feelings are overrated. And the temptation is to say well, it’s difficult to change the way I feel, it won’t happen overnight, I’ve tried before and it didn’t work, but…

The only way to change anything it to make it change, right?

And while we’re talking changing attitudes, consider this: it’s okay to fail. Rejection hurts like hell. A bad review stings. Even being left off a ‘year’s best’ or failing to make an award shortlist can hurt, if that’s what you’re aiming for – or if it happened to you once and it’s never happened since. (“I’m an imposter!” the mind cries. “I’ll never write anything as good as that ever again!”.) And I’m not about to spout some pseudo-philosophical missive about how rejection is actually good for you (although that may be true? Someone more qualified than I am can substantiate.) But to fail isn’t to lose everything. It is literally not the end of the world, even if it feels that way.

Consider that every submission is an act of bravery. Every story you send out for critique. You’re showing your soft underbelly to the world, and who knows what kind of damage they might do? And if you can commit that singular brave act, what else might you be capable of? How can you call yourself an impostor when you are doing the work?

This is a challenge to myself, but also to my fellow impostors. Consider that failure is not the end; it is not proof of anything except that, in this one instance, in that one moment, something just didn’t work out. Failure ought to be a self-limiting phenomenon: it can’t leach out or infect anything else you do. It’s a singular instance, a moment in time. What does failure mean, objectively? Well, worst case scenario dictates it’s that you’re not good enough, but is that realistic? It could be that what you wrote wasn’t right for that publication; that your stories aren’t to that editor’s personal taste. It could be that what you wrote was really very good, it just so happened that someone else’s story was a little bit better (and that’s okay too – I feel like ‘other people are sometimes going to be better than you’ is an important thing to come to terms with as well. Someone else’s talent/hard work doesn’t invalidate your own – success is not a zero-sum game.)

And yes, it could be that what you wrote wasn’t the best example of your work. But that doesn’t prove you’re an impostor. Rather, it’s an incitement to go out and do better next time. Because you can, and because you will.

Because you’re not really an impostor at all. You just think you are.

Things I read in June


Bodies of Water by V.H Leslie

I’ve been looking forward to this since it was announced, so I was very pleased that it lived up to all my expectations. I love the subtle, chilly kind of horror Leslie so often deals in – creepy, pervasive unease which seems to originate at the very core of the story. Parallel narratives are linked via the imposing Wakewater House, almost more an entity than a building, like the Overlook Hotel with its angry ghosts and unquiet spirits. There is a strong thread of femaleness in this story, from historical abuses and dismissals of women who do not (or cannot) conform to the connections women make, whether it be the tragic (and touching) love between Evelyn and Milly, or the conspiratorial friendship of Kirsten and Manon. Leslie’s smart, sensitive prose and clever plotting make for a fantastic read.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

I have nothing against YA fiction – I actually quite enjoy a lot of it. I don’t quite understand how The Lie Tree ended up classed as YA fiction, however – is it because the protagonist is a young woman? The story itself is incredibly dark and thematically mature, especially from a theological perspective, but that’s no bad thing – and quite honestly it’s great that young people have access to this kind of story, which doesn’t patronise or coddle. The Lie Tree, like Bodies of Water, is an interesting commentary on the historical roles and limitations of women, and on overcoming these through strength of will. The central premise – a plant which feeds on the propagation of a lie and rewards the liar with visions of a particular truth – is brilliantly imaginative and and also a little terrifying. And the sense of place is wonderful.

Under The Skin by Michael Faber

I find myself divided about this. Part of me liked it very much – the deliberate ambiguity of the setup is very clever, as is the subtlety of the worldbuilding. For a long time, you’re not entirely sure what the nature of Isserley and her situation actually is. There’s genuine tension every time Isserley picks up a hitchhiker, and the deterioration of her emotional state adds to this. But I felt it was also heavy-handed at times, not least with its allusions to the meat industry and to capitalist society (and I say this as a socialist vegetarian!) There’s a lot to like here, and the imagination of it is undeniably brilliant, but it fell short in some areas for me.

The Bricks That Built The Houses by Kate Tempest

The debut novel by south London poet and musician Kate Tempest, of whom I am admittedly already a fan. Kate’s lyrical prose will either delight or irritate, and the bluntness of her storytelling might not appeal to everyone, but I found it brilliantly authentic and relevant, a heartfelt and honest tale of three individuals and their very human flaws, the way they orbit one another and the collisions that ensue. There’s a fairly standard plot involving drug deals gone wrong, but the real magic is in the way the characters interact and speak to one another.