Grill-Pans and Domestic Ukuleles

Music: David Sylvian, all daygrillpans

Revelation of the day: we have two ancient grill-pans, and even though I’ve used them every day since I could cook, I never noticed that on one the ridges run horizontally, and on the other vertically. I’d often subconsciously wondered why sometimes I can use the spatula more deftly than others. Moreover, my parents hadn’t noticed, either!

The route I take my uke.

The route I take my uke.

I’ve spent my week arranging music for SATB choir, plotting two new YAs that I’m really excited about, and walking my ukulele down to the beach for a play (that sounds like ukulele is a dog breed…). Ergo this weekend I’m snowed under with neglected schoolwork, and haven’t the time to write an original post.

I do, however, have ideas in bounty—pitching, enthusing about BASIL, how much I adore Focus, and the wonderful Portsmouth Sinfonia (don’t worry if that made no sense whatsoever). Stay tuned (my ukulele didn’t)!



Did That Three-Year-Old Just Say ‘Arse’?

Music: Genesis—Horizons

I must be a bad Catholic and a bad musician for saying this, but I kind of hate church when it goes on forever and the Mass is in Latin and the priest rambles unintelligently about a mumbled Gospel and the organ does all these twiddly bits that are impossible for the ordinary person to sing. So whenever I can (ie school holidays) I go to weekday Mass. Half nine till ten, no music, no sermon; just the [most] important parts. Just me and the nuns.

I went this morning. Arrived in good time, knelt down to pray. The morning sunlight made a fantasia of the coloured glass behind the altar, streaming in ribbons through the cold church. That and silence was all the music I joseph's

Enter the priest. Since our Canon had been flown across to hospital on the mainland for an emergency quadruple heart bypass, the elderly man swaying in was a temporary replacement. I’d never seen him before. When he began to speak, it was a relief to hear that he was English (our recent turnover of priests includes Kenyan, Polish, and Nigerian. All unintelligible. And even when we got lucky with Irish, we only discovered after that guy’s first sermon that he’d been talking about ‘death’ the whole time rather than ‘debt’). But unfortunately his scratchy bass didn’t resonate in our vast church, so, while I heard something about the ordination of seventeenth century knights, I can’t claim to know the facts.

The readings began. Good; they’d turned the lectern microphone on, if not the priest’s. At what point did I first detect it? A squealing, a yelling, an occasional bellowed “I WANT MAMMYYY!” from the porch behind me. It escalated to full-blown screaming during the second reading. And then the unfortunate female decided to bring her three small boys into the body of the church.

The first I saw was a boy of around five, marching down the centre aisle and apologising impudently to everyone sat at the end of a row. Behind him was a curly-haired urchin of around three, stomping very audibly and gurgling to himself, quite unaware of anybody else in the church straining to hear the priest drone out the Gospel. Or were we all distracted by that time? Finally the lady herself, staggering down the aisle with a precarious clutch on a boy who can’t’ve been more than two.

Gosh, those lungs! At the nearest screech, I heard the hearing aids of the gentleman behind me give a warning buzz.stjoseph's

After some altercation and the testing out of various pews, the quartet took up residence in the front row. The children would not sit. The children would not stop talking. Or giggling. Or screaming. The thin-haired woman, who I recognised as the uber-prudent, pious Latin teacher from the college, hissed at them, grabbed at them, chased them up and down the aisles and between the pews. She hadn’t enough hands. But I sure have never seen someone pass so many times in front of the altar during Mass. Or after, for that matter. Or bow so low every. single. time.

The priest continued. Everybody continued. I bit my lip to keep from laughing and, and if it weren’t for the woman near the back with the shrill, unmusical voice, would’ve forgotten to join in with half the responses. Nay, I wouldn’t’ve known they were being spoken. If I’d been wearing headphones, it would’ve been the most perfect morning entertainment anyone could’ve dreamed up.

I’ll take a moment to put this woman in context. She once scolded my mum for speaking a couple of polite words to a family friend in the confession queue. She also told our church band off for a single word in one of our worship songs—it was blasphemous, she said; it wasn’t Catholic. She dislikes us anyway because the stuff we play is modern and Anglican. The three boys she brought to church—and kept in church, when considerate carers would remove their screaming children from the building during worship, or stop their children from playing hide-and-seek all over the altars—were her grandchildren; which is odd, because she isn’t married. And, hey, “that’s not very Catholic”.

I’m afraid I have no sympathy for her. Perhaps I should. But I’m not going to judge. She made my morning (and gave me a blog post).

So, what else is there to say? It continued like this for another twenty minutes (very long time, it felt). The point of Mass was kind of lost on me. At the end the eldest boy wanted to light candles. Ten of them. And they cost thirty pence each. So lady gets out her lighter and, with a guilty look towards the priest, gives him the flame. And then, leaving the elder pair to light their own fires, runs across the entire church once again to chase the youngest boy.

Bet she makes a great grandmother. What we all would give to take such liberties with her! But nobody will dare mention how appalling the situation was. We are British; we let people judge themselves. And if they don’t, we can simply laugh at them.

Was my hearing blunted by the tinnitus of shrieking infants? Or did I really hear boy number two belt out a quick ‘arse!’ during communion?

And here, after nine hundred words, I find my topic.

Swearing is a part of everyday life for most us. Whether in pain, humour, stress management, attention and approval, or a substitute for physical aggression, we are very fond of our cuss words. And so what if we do cuss? So long as we pick our audience so as not to offend anyone, what’s the harm? In most cases swearing actually has a positive effect.

Yes, Basil again. I spent a whole morning downloading Fawlty Towers GIFs...

Yes, Basil again. I spent a whole morning downloading Fawlty Towers GIFs…

But a three-year-old saying ‘arse’ in church…either that will amuse you, or it will make you feel slightly uncomfortable.

A month or two ago I finished a book at Gatwick airport, and, with the prospect of an hour or so on a plane with nothing to do, I went to the bookshop. Later, my mother asked to see what I’d bought. She flicked through it. Her face changed. We fell out for days over Gone Girl, thanks to Gillian Flynn’s free use of F-bombs. My mum thought that any book so abounding with profanities would advocate and convey other, harmful ideas, that would be immensely unsuitable for a seventeen-year-old.

The thing is, she is naïve, and I have sheltered her. All my friends swear. All my friends drink. Our class read of Year 9 (age 13) featured unprotected teen sex, and not even as a plot point. It was gratuitous. Everything is gratuitous. I’ve encountered hundreds of times more swears in real life than in any book, and have been exposed to ‘ideas’ far more damaging. At least, my mum would think them damaging. I don’t want to upset her.

Ideas are addictive; they’ve influenced my psyche more than I like to admit. And as a young person with a growing brain and developing personality, I know these ideas will guide my decisions for the rest of my life. It’s a sickening thought, when I imagine the time of innocence (I can remember it no longer) and think of the person I might’ve been. That’s partly why my faith is so important to me—believing now, and living the belief, will set me up for life. It’s my one defence.

But let me go on about swearing.

It appeals to the animals in us. It stimulates us, it captures our attention. There’s no denying that. But does that make it okay?

It will make me fit in. It will make people like me. Yeah, sure, you’ll fit in. Just assume everybody else will swear no matter whether you do or not. I’m a bit of an idealist. And I do not swear. And I find that few people will swear when they’re talking to me—and if they do, they’ll apologise. As if they feel it’s wrong; they don’t want to corrupt my mind. That’s a super gratifying thing. I see a parallel in my dealings with alcohol: drink a little, and people will press you to drink more; own a no-alcohol policy, and they’ll respect it. It makes everything so much easier! You have a choice to get dragged into the vortex.

It makes me feel young and free! Ever popped a cuss at an incredibly inconvenient moment? Remember when you were caught by your parents for the first time? It’s stereotypical that teenagers are a little too free. We’re still getting used to the ways of society, and we’re pushing boundaries and craving the thrill of defying protocol. I wonder if we’re simply taking the lead from our elders. And if our stereotype gives us the go-ahead.

There’s no word with more than four letters that will express what I feel. Yep, there’s evidence to suggest swearing has a cathartic effect. This is a common point—especially among writers. Real people swear. How are our characters going to be believable if they don’t? I could say ‘effectiveness demeans with overuse’ or simply ‘lazy’, but really I have one answer to that: if you’re telling me there are no ways of communicating emotion, conveying character or setting scene other than sputtering fricatives all over the place, you need to get yourself some classes.

In response, we have to distinguish a writer from his characters. “I,” you say, “know that there are other means of expression…but my characters don’t.” Yes, yes, dumb your characters for your audience by all means. I’ve no problem with that. (Sarcasm, yes?)

In terms of ‘ideas’, I’m anti-swear and anti-sex in my YA. Probably, I admit, because of my innocence. But Gillian Flynn wasn’t pitching to seventeen-year-olds. And especially not expecting to have to get past their mothers. (I read GG anyway, by the by. And loved it.)

So who makes anti-cuss pacts? Religious nuts, like me. Conscientiousness, religiosity, sexual anxiety and agreeableness are negatively correlated with swearing persons. The last instance interests me particularly, but this post is getting long…

Take note: extroverts are more likely to swear. I’ve blogged before about extroversion in the Western society, and why it is popular and attractive. So it’s really not surprising that we imagine swearing will boost our self-esteem and others’ esteem of us. It’s been suggested that there’s a positive correlation between honesty and swearing. But perhaps that’s a result of the association with extraversion—which has nothing to do with honesty, when you think about it. But, then, children are pretty honest…

I swing back to the three-year-old in church. I’ve found an article claiming that children as young as two know how to swear, and have a working vocabulary of thirty to forty profanities by the time they turn double figures.

Maybe society has developed the suppression of swearing as a vehicle to teach children that their urges must be subordinate to etiquette. A by-effect is the conditioning to think some words are ‘bad’. (Like how a by-effect of the disciplinary measure of spanking is teaching them to deal with physical violence. But unlike, note, in that it teaches children that violence as a punishment is okay! And then there are other issues: for example, if spanking can be expected as a punishment for foul language, is there a corresponding expectation that the child will swear?) Can a word be intrinsically harmful? Only in the meaning attached to it. Like how casinos, despite their paranoia, depend on card-counters for their wellbeing*.

I guess it’s really all the stigma attached that makes swearing such a powerful tool. (And the sound, shape and movement of the words themselves…but that’s a whole ‘nother post’s worth.)

So what do you think? So what if a three-year-old said ‘arse’ in church?


*At any moment a casino could make a few changes to their games that would mean no skilled blackjack player could ever beat them. But if the public find out they can’t win—the vain, vain public!—nobody will play the games. So instead, casinos spend millions trying to detect card-counting practices (which aren’t illegal, I must add). I exaggerated: card-counters put casinos in a dilemma; their patronage (and the Hollywood notions attached to their success), rather than their existence, is what sustains the casinos. But that’s just my theory, and I’d love to debate it!

Prog Rock and Prog Writing–Teens Can Write, Too! Blog Chain February 2015

Music: Adrian Belew—Big Electric Cat

Here it is! The prompt for this month’s Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain is:

“How does music relate to your writing?”

This is a question I could take hours about answering. Music is my number one hobby, both playing and listening (hobbies being distinct from passions, in the respect that I intend to take writing and maths to professional levels). Visitors can always tell when I’m home: soaring guitar solos, tuba multiphonics or shrill mellotron drones cranked up to full volume breach my defences (three doors) and penetrate the rest of the house.

It took me two weeks short of two years to get through my dad’s music collection, and, having navigated (and loved) Russian ballet, Solid Gold Soul and Icelandic baroque-pop, I’ve discovered that my true calling is progressive rock in the vein of King Crimson (who I’m going to see in September, woohoo!), Focus, Renaissance, Rush, Marillion and Yes.

I don’t make writing playlists. I find tone is best fed by the funkiest mix of styles music can give me, so I randomise it and let the variation drive my writing. But that’s the great thing about prog rock: its versatility. King Crimson are particularly known for their extreme counter-cultural music-making. Stick with their seemingly-chaotic mesh of awkward time signatures, atypical rhythmic structures, dissonant chords and fragmented lyrics for five or ten minutes and maybe you’ll fall under their enchantment.

Another aspect of versatility is instrumentation. Jethro Tull included a flautist (who famously stood on one leg while he played); Dan Ar Braz played Celtic jigs with a rock set-up (note the driving percussion, guitar solo and BAGPIPES(!!!), besides the pop-like vocals); then there’s the double-neck guitar which became a signature of the lead of jazz fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra, and was used to create textural diversity ranging from Indian classical to chamber-like influences.

Prog rock helped to spawn a genre called ‘ambient music’. Most people have heard the motif of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells—but have you heard the whole track, or any of his other music? Oldfield is a master of writing mesmerising, lyric-less ostinatos that can just as well intrigue and inspire as provide background music for a project. That’s what I love: music that doesn’t set a standard of attention, that can drive your subconscious or satisfy your conscious intelligence with every new listening.

Next up is a lesser-known band called It Bites. Like Arcade Fire, they’re perhaps straying towards art and arena rock, but it’s the busy originality of their music that I find so easy to write to. It’s the kind of music that, even if it distracts you, you won’t emerge from its enchantment regretting lost time. It’s creatively enriching.

I can’t find my favourite track, Plastic Dreamer, on Youtube, but I urgeurgeurge you to look it up on whatever other media you have. Or have some Uriah Heep instead–this song of his has the same kind of effect on me.

Then we have Steely Dan, who explore tensions between jazz and pop chord progressions. They’re so well-known for using the added two chord they nicknamed it ‘mu major’, and the name has stuck. Their dissonant harmonies particularly keep me sitting up straight. It’s musical oxymoron! What author wouldn’t value that?

If I especially need something lighter, I’ll turn to Barclay James Harvest, America or Kayak. But they have more lyrics than the rest of the above songs put together; I use them for feel-good turn-tos, if I’m overdosing on cynical humour.

For the record, I don’t give a damn about a song’s lyrics. Considering I’m a writer, this may seem counter-productive; but if music is another medium for conveying stories and emotion, I feel it ought to be able to do so without words. If words can add to the feeling, so much the good; often I feel they don’t match the tone of the music anyway, and if attended too closely they ruin the track for me. So I listen primarily for wordless things—and then attempt to reproduce them in MY words, through writing.

Finally, I can’t finish this post without mentioning Captain Beefheart’s magnificent album Trout Mask Replica. The so-called Magic Band lived communally in a small rented house for eight months rehearsing the twenty-eight ridiculously difficult compositions of Van Vliet (aka Beefheart). During this time Van Vliet asserted utter artistic and emotional domination over his band members, using physical violence and unrelenting psychological abuse if they exhibited less than total submission to his vision. They rehearsed fourteen hours a day with restrictions on leaving the house. With no income, they were malnourished and in poor health—after their arrest for shoplifting, they were bailed out by none other than Frank Zappa!

Yes, it’s horrific (and it may all be rumours; Beefheart was known for those too), but it’s another artistic environment, and it translates in the music. This album has pretty much everything: folk, classical, blues, jazz; falsetto, casual ramblings, rumbling bass; history, politics, love, conformity, and civilisation. And the more I listen to this album the more I adore its tightness and spontaneous feel.

So, click on a few links and taste some sounds of the seventies! Do you like prog rock and ambient music, or hate it with a passion? Or are you utterly undecided, and not all that inclined to decide, either?


Here’s the rest of the chain:

6th and





11th and


13th and


15th and <<<YOU ARE HERE

16th and

17th and

18th and



21st and

22nd and


24th and


26th and

27th and

28th – (Announcing the topic for March’s chain.)

(anti-)Valentine’s Day Reads

Music: Arcade Fire–My Body is a Cage

Two posts within as many days about BOOKS. I know. Terrible, right? Considering I’m a Lit student and a writer.

Who’d’ve guessed I’d joined the anti-Valentine’s Day parade? My reading repertoire has decided for me, apparently. Frank Sinatra might be blaring out my speakers, but today’s reads defy the mood.

Oh, hello, Basil. Not sure what resemblance my brought thinks I have to John Cleese, though...

Oh, hello, Basil. Not sure what resemblance my brother thinks I have to John Cleese, though…

First up, we have BASIL by Wilkie Collins. The one is my nickname (courtesy of my brother), and the other one of my favourite authors, so I figured I ought to own this book. And read it, because you shouldn’t own books you don’t intend to read (mhm, I may be guilty…I’ve never even flicked through the Oxford Dictionary of Popes). Of course, before I ordered it, I didn’t realise that Basil, the titular character, falls in love with the linen-draper’s daughter at first sight. Ugh, that old trope.


His and Margaret’s marriage is secret, because Basil’s family are exceedingly class-conscious, and unconsummated, because Margaret is only seventeen. But the night before the pair are due to live with each other, Basil catches Margaret with her forty-year-old tutor!

The book is about the conflict between sexual and romantic needs—and, contrary to so much of literature, this time the woman (um, girl?!) is the unrepentant sexually precocious sinner and the guy the hopeless romantic.

Secondly, I’m reading THE MAID’S TRAGEDY, a play written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher in the early 1600s. My choir (I’ve cut back to one vocal ensemble now) are singing ‘Lay a garland on her hearse’, a madrigal setting of one of the verses in the play, so I thought I’d look it up. We’re not a clean-singing choir, but…to put it plainly, this is an Elizabethan sex tragedy.

The King orders his courtier Amintor to marry Evadne instead of Aspatia, the girl to whom he is betrothed. But the night after the wedding, Amintor discovers that Evadne only married him to conceal that she is the King’s mistress.

What with Aspatia’s father plotting revenge on Amintor, Amintor plotting revenge on the King, and Evadne’s brother prevailing upon everyone else to take their own revenges, there promises to be a veritable mound of bodies onstage in the final scene.

Faithless women (as that Eagles song goes). Okay, I get it. I’ll pretend it isn’t the world’s ‘day of love’ and enjoy my reading.


That said, I can always strip people and love from my lecture. See what just arrived in the post? MATHS AND PASTA. Yeah. Someone (an architect called George L Legendre, to be specific) actually wrote a book mathematically classifying about eighty different types of pasta.pastabydesignpastabydesign2

And this is the reading I like best. Because I really really like pasta. 😀

Light reading at the Premier Inn last week, when I competed in the UKMT Senior Team Maths Challenge for the very last time *sadness*

Light reading at the Premier Inn last week, when I competed in the UKMT Senior Team Maths Challenge for the very last time *sadness*

Post-SVS Critique Workshop

The fabulous hosts of last month’s pitching competition Sun Versus Snow, Michelle Hauck and Amy Trueblood, are offering this great critique hop for the next week or so. (Details here.)

So, rip me (my entry, that is) up. And thank you vastly for your time! 🙂


Query: *edited*

Grand-maman’s inconsiderate passing leaves Boulangerie Herriot one apron vacant, and fifteen-year-old Flavie is supposed to fill it. But when her dad bribes her into kneading dough overtime in return for a summer holiday for her little brother, the custard curdles. Flavie steals the ginger and declares civil war. If she can’t break her dad, she’ll be quitting school at sixteen and folding pastry full-time.

A half-baked sabotage attempt and a posse of toads in the water-tank later, the Boulangerie is sued for sub-par hygiene. With the kitchens shut for the duration of the law suit, saboteur Flavie is exiled to her uncle’s farm on some remote island still bunker-dotted from its occupation (and near-starvation) in World War II. The idea: she cultivates her very own gastronomic appreciation and returns to town imbued with the family’s ten-generation-long devotion to bread. More helpfully, Flavie discovers that her dad isn’t the tyrant he seems, and that the freedom of France depends on affordable comestibles—specifically, on small private bakeries.

Her dad needs all the help Flavie can give him to stop the corporations monopolising the people’s bread. And if the welfare of the populace doesn’t stir her senses (because let’s face it, Flavie doesn’t care for politics), the thought of her brother’s culinary dreams going sunny side down might be enough to brave those kitchens again.

MORE LOVELY THAN A CABBAGE PATCH is a Young Adult Contemporary novel complete at 56,000 words. It takes place in the lush Parisian countryside and on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel. (Can anyone think of any comps?)


First 250: *edited*

The bus heaved with rain of the April kind, the don’t-think-about-summer-quite-yet kind. Flavie pressed her hot cheek to the juddering glass expanse and shut her eyes.

It had been good for Boulangerie business, catering for Grand-maman’s funeral that morning. One guest, reassuringly epicurean despite the presence of a corpse, had complimented the cucumber and cream-cheese sandwiches—the perfect middle finger for all those times Grand-maman had badmouthed Flavie’s cream-cheese.

“Yo. Flavie. Are you blanking me? I’ve said your name twenty times!”

Flavie dragged her eyelids open. Jacques Durant perched on the bar skirting the luggage rack across the aisle. He’d donned his sardonic voice, nasal over the diesel engine’s cough-and-splutter.

“Sorry, didn’t see you.”

“What’s up, have you lost your raison d’être?”

She pulled a smile. “The opposite, I guess.”

Even Oncle E had flown over from his English farm on his English island to celebrate Grand-maman’s demise. It seemed he owed a duty to the mother who’d cast him off—if only to bury her.

Flavie would’ve told Jacques everything if she minded his not knowing.

“Good day?” he asked.

After the funeral she’d gone back to school. Last lesson had been awful. Some hush-voiced teacher must’ve told the class, “You must be good to Flavie. Flavie is bereaved. You must unite to help her through her time of trouble.” So they said nothing and shrank from her silence. So she smiled at their pity.

“Pretty good.”


Tag: ‘Ten Books That Changed Me’

Music: Dave Brubeck–Kathy’s Waltz

Five months sounds a grossly long time when it’s your final year of school. Long ‘enough to gain a lot and lose a lot, and go through a lot and end up pretty much where you began (goes without saying that I’ve gleaned vats of maturity and general excellence). All anybody needs to know is that I’m still thinking and breathing and most certainly writing, and do not intend to bury this blog in the near future. So, without further ado,


Miss Alexandrina Brant nominated me for this tag on Facebook a long time ago… The reason I never fulfilled my tag: I couldn’t make do with a simple list of titles. Per book, one paragraph summarising and one paragraph enthusing? That should suffice…

Category One: School Stories

  • However I might fan over Springdale and the Chalet School, the standalone school stories are a better representation of the appeal of the genre. Just so you know school stories aren’t just squealing schoolgirls’ feuds, their authors weren’t imbeciles, and their readers aren’t blind disciples of utter lameness.

1. THE LEAGUE OF THE SMALLEST by Clare Malloryleagueofthesmallest

The new Games teacher notices the irregularity of the school ‘crocodile’ (the two-abreast line in which the girls assemble for walks) and reorganises it in order of height. So the shortest (also newest, youngest and least adequate) Prefect, Jane, ends up marooned amidst the Juniors, and an idle Middle, Eve ‘Lanky’ Lancaster, leads the entire school to church. Big deal? In a traditional boarding school, Hell, yes!

Height: one of the simplest forms of diversity, and rarely addressed in any depth in the literary world. Mallory explores firstly the impact on an ordered society of, well, empirically reordering it—but the real consequence of the height-organised ‘croc’ is an idea: the idea that short means inferior. Thus, the girls at the end of the crocodile form a solemn alliance to prove the idea wrong. (Also: weird. I could’ve sworn this one was by Angela Brazil…)

2. EVELYN FINDS HERSELF by Josephine Elder

Evelyn and Elizabeth are so close they’re like one person. But the day their invincible partnership on the hockey field is split up, a rift opens between them. The book charts their last four years of school, during which they meet new friends—Elizabeth a powder-nosed hockey player, and Evelyn a fungi-loving teacher—and finally drift back together, but as different people, rather than two halves of one.

Evelyn Finds Herself

This is a real coming-of-age novel. It’s about friendship and imitation and compatibility, and the awkwardness of growing up and parting ways with old doctrines, but primarily it exults in human variation and finding one’s own niche. Even the extroverted introverts would relate to Evelyn like a kindred spirit.

  • And did I mention neither of these books have antagonists? Another of my literary turn-ons.

Category Two: Fantasy

  • I’ve never written Fantasy, and never really wanted to, but these three have significantly impacted me both on a personal and writerly level.

3. DRAGONSKIN SLIPPERS by Jessica Day George

When Creel’s aunt abandons her outside a dragon’s lair, hoping it’s the least some handsome prince can do to rescue her and all her family from poverty (oh, and the dragon), Creel is set for a long wait. Instead, the dragon in question invites her to choose a single pair of shoes from his hoard, in return for not bothering him again. Soon she’s on the city road in the hope of finding work as a dressmaker, as she always wanted, starting a war between humans and dragons (not as she wanted)—and, of course, getting her prince.


George is a fabulous children’s author. I can’t read her any more, because I find myself too critical, but SLIPPERS taught me about spunky heroines with unexpected dreams. I don’t know whether it’s the rich, layered (but accessible) world George creates, or the stunning voice, or the undeniable originality of the plot while remaining within the bounds of plausibility. In fact, it may be nothing more complicated than the first paragraph with which I first fell in love: ‘It was my aunt who decided to give me to the dragon. Not that she was evil, or didn’t care for me. It’s just that we were very poor, and she was, as we said in those parts, dumber than two turnips in a rain barrel.’ Tell me it doesn’t have everything.

4. FLY BY NIGHT by Frances Hardinge

flybynightTwelve-year-old Mosca is on the run. She burned down her uncle’s mill, and the word-wielding swindler in the town stocks is her ticket to a better life. But when Mosca discovers that her guide is under bribe to accost the pirate printing press goading the public to rise against the Guilds, she is embroiled in the world of lies and crimes she knows best.

The plot of this book is exceptional, but it’s Hardinge’s style—the imagery, oh, my gosh!—that blows me away. I have never read a book so packed with mind-bogglingly original similes and metaphors, without ever becoming cringy or overly poetic. And the style writes the world, the characters, the tone, and everything else. I can’t praise it enough. Plus, floating coffee-houses…a writer’s dreams on water…

5. GIFTS by Ursula Le Guin

Orrec Castro is supposed to have the gift of undoing like his father. But when he accidentally ‘unmakes’ his own dog, his gift is deemed too dangerous and unpredictable to be left to chance. Orrec’s father blindfolds him for three years so he can learn to control his power. But Orrec doesn’t have the gift of undoing at all—he has the gift of doing, of making…of writing. So who killed Orrec’s dog?giftsleguin

Again, the world-building is incredible. But this is an extremely different world to those in the books above. Le Guin’s Western Shore does not have the fantastical creatures of George’s Feraval, nor the bitter strains of poverty, class jealousy and corruption in Hardinge’s Fractured Realm. The Western Shore is a vast continent made up of a host of different people: it is a fantasy of race and cultural relativism, analogous but for the whisperings of sorcery to the City States of Ancient Greece.

I might as well say, GIFTS is the first in the Western Shore trilogy, and my favourite is really the third one, POWERS. It takes freedom, grief and madness to depths that make me shiver simply in remembrance.

Category Three: Contemporary

  • My choice genre. Wide spectrum, though.

6. CUTTING LOOSE by Carole Lloydcuttingloose

This appeared in my room one day, thin, with a faded cover and brown pages. I picked it up because that’s what I do with books—and had finished it by the end of the day. It’s about a normal girl with a normal life and normal, fairly mediocre problems. It takes place over three days, during which she looks back on the previous week and resents everything in her life. And finally she gets to the end and…lets go. Cuts loose. This book took my angsty teenager-ness and let me breathe.

It implements another of my choice techniques: the anti-climax. And it taught me that it’s totally okay to write about the mundane, as long as you have something interesting to say about the uninteresting.

7. THE BOOK OF LIES by Mary Horlock


Cathy pushes her ex-best-friend off a cliff, gets her favourite teacher fired and eventually escapes the island in secret. Dual narrative with her uncle, who lived (ahem, subsisted) on the starving and tyrannised island during the Occupation in the 40s.

This book captures everything I hate about the place I live. Mary Horlock went to school with my mum, as a matter of fact—and this book was a huge surprise to me, because I’ve never read anything decent that came out of Guernsey (except Les Mis, if we can claim any credit for that).  It explores all the horrors of living in close proximity with your enemies, the madness of private girls’ schools in the 80s, and the lies that keep a small island from civil war. Microcosmic settings get me so excited.



Roughly, two boys trying to apprehend the robbery of twenty enormous koi carp end up locked in the van with the carp. A wall of boxes (full of clocks) screens the stolen fish (and boys) from view. Across the journey from Wales to Dover, the boys set eight thousand alarm clocks to go off at the same time, to alert Customs to their predicament.

I was only eight or so, but I have never forgotten ROBBERY. It taught me that wackiness makes for memorability, and it’s for that reason I write whatever extraordinary situations my brain comes up with, and try to live at least one every day; that way, anytime someone asks me how I am, I have an immediate list of unexpected responses.

Category Four: Classics

  • Inevitably.

9. GREEN DOLPHIN COUNTRY by Elizabeth Goudge


Distracted by the delights of China, William accidentally deserts the Royal Navy. Now with a warrant on his head, he escapes to New Zealand, where he can fund himself a new living, and writes back to Guernsey for his wife-to-be. But out of the two sisters Marguerite and Marianne, who both love him, he can never remember which is which. He writes for Marianne, the sweet, happy golden girl; but doth sail halfway across the world to him the real Marianne, ambitious and fractious. Their marriage is fraught with murdering natives and shattering earthquakes, as well as quarrels, whereas heartbroken Marguerite, stuck on the island, takes up the habit.

Quite apart from the tragic mistake that composes the premise, the unrestrained passages of quiet exalting imagery that infuse the text, and the unexpected tale of fierce survival lurking behind the first few hundred pages of ordered Victorian society, Goudge’s chief feat is Marianne. Marianne is irreconcilably despicable and relatable. She is so, so flawed in her intense, famishing passion. She has all confidence that she can achieve anything she wants…except happiness; and in that respect she has zero self-esteem. No matter she’s two centuries old, she’s the most accurate depiction of a teenage girl I’ve ever read.

10. THE WOMAN IN WHITE by Wilkie Collins


The instant that drawing master Walter Hartright meets his new student Laura, he sees an uncanny resemblance with the young woman who recently escaped a nearby asylum. When Laura’s new husband falls into financial difficulties, and plots to switch her for the terminally ill Anne and gain Laura’s inheritance, it’s up to Walter to restore Laura’s identity. And there’s someone who’ll burn churches to keep him quiet.

Mystery above mysteries! In legal style, Wilkie Collins writes a succession of narrators in a grand roll of testimonies. Scandal, insanity and arson (and an Italian Count): they’re all there. Apart from the unusual structure and complex plot, Collins’ characters are beautiful. Walter is more willpower than archetypal sleuth, and even Laura, whom one might imagine to be a passive victim, is likeable enough to drive the emotional journey. Every secondary character is distinct; most especially Laura’s half-sister Marian, whose devotion and intelligence are a wonderful testament to Collins’ stance on women in the nineteenth century. Well, the entire book, if it comes to that, declares the disadvantageous position of women, whether clever, married or mad.

  • I dare you to pick one of my ten—any one!—and add it to your reading list.

Post coming soon: music and writing, as part of the TCWT February blog chain. I intend to have a decent crack at keeping this blog up to date, so don’t leave me just yet!

Falling Flat, and Powerfully – Teens Can Write, Too! Blog Chain September 2014

Hi, I’m delighted to be back on the Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain. This month’s prompt is:

“What are your favorite book beginnings and/or endings?”

As a reader, I feel most satisfied with a less-than-satisfactory ending. Don’t call the contradiction police yet! Let me defend myself!

           1. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Now, you’re never going to plough through a 1,449-page tome knowing your destination, so I mustn’t give it away—maybe that’s the thing I love so much about this book. Mitchell takes you on a journey so unpredictable you can’t tell where it’s going to end. I mean, every twenty pages an unforeseen plot-twist grabs your insides and twists them into a colonic knot. And then the culmination of all this is a damn anti-climax!


The first edition cover.

Some readers would feel betrayed. It’s as if the writer gives up, not only on her intricate plot, but on the readers who’ve religiously followed and felt alongside Scarlett O’Hara. The non-spoiler version: Scarlett’s goal has been changing at the same rate it’s been slipping away.

Spoilers: Throughout the entire book, Scarlett has an immature desire for her childhood friend Ashley. She meets and marries Rhett Butler, the only man who understands her worldliness, though she doesn’t love him as he does her. A thousand pages later, Scarlett realises she loves Rhett after all, and Ashley was never worth her obsession. But by this time Rhett is bored of her pining for Ashley. His last words, spoken so heart-wrenchingly by Clark Gable in the 1939 film: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, are so completely the opposite of what the reader has been willing all along.

I guess that’s it. The characters’ motives are at odds with the will of the reader. We know if they ‘just’ surrender their pride and fall into one another’s arms, everything’ll be okay and they’ll live happily ever after. That’s all anyone wants, right? But they don’t, because sometimes it’s genuinely impossible to retrace your steps through traumatic events like those shrouding Scarlett’s life. Anyway, that discrepancy is what I love. It’s so…human. And so tragic.

On the other hand, I didn’t like the beginning of GWTW. The first hundred and fifty pages were so stuffed with insignificant details, I guessed they had to be foreshadowing (it gave me a kick later when I was right). But the moment the book took off, I was lost.

         2. Cutting Loose by Carole Lloyd

This book changed my attitude to writing. It turned up under my bed—by providential means, I believe—pages browned as if with lentigos, cover blanched from untoward exposure. A Contemporary Bildungsroman set in the nineties(?), it basically tells the story of a girl’s crappy Christmas, alternating between her looking back from December 28th/29th and progressing with the New Year festivities.

It begins with the protagonist, Charlie, resenting the relentless tone of the telephone and the control it has over twenty-first century human beings, and believing herself irreparably changed from her rubbish Christmas. But over the next forty-eight hours, as she reflects on what has changed her, she realises she’s as selfish and hypocritical as ever. It’s a journey through levels of maturity, condensed into a small time-frame to augment the intensity and inconstancy of human perception. Charlie easily convinces you she has nothing left to learn, until the final chapter where she goes back on all her judgements of the past days and…well, takes the advice of her enemy and buys ‘some whacking great earrings’.

When I first read it a year or two ago, it resonated with my own teenage moroseness, insincerity and pretensions to maturity. Now, even though I pay more attention to the way it’s written, the ending still echoes something comfortingly lifelike. I can only describe it as a sigh of resignation.

          3. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Again, classic. Again, anti-climax. Again, Bildungsroman. Next time I read it I have to count the times I expected Holden to get laid…and he didn’t. Not once. I mean, we didn’t even get to meet the girl he periodically mentions (Jane Gallagher). The entire thing is a ball of wool-fluff expectations that amount to nothing. That kind of book ignites my internal fires far more than a high-stakes fight scene.

Again, first edition cover.

Again, first edition cover.

I suppose, by using Holden as an example, I’m also exhibiting something masochistic. The informal, authentic (albeit unreliable) way Salinger writes draws us into Holden’s mind in a faintly disturbing manner: we share his suppressed angst and rampant hormones, his stream-of-consciousness-style evocations, and the seemingly far-fetched connections so true of our own thought processes. Reading Holden is reliving the tragedy of our own special human madnesses, loving and hating them…and now I’m in danger of getting poetic without point, so I’ll leave it there.

As ever, I’m interested to hear your thoughts. But make sure you check out everyone else in the chain, too:

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This Made Me Furious (but I can’t remember why)

I ranted my internal monologue to bits on this topic yesterday. Let’s see what comes out now.

Someone I know recently went to an event for single people. It was supposed to be advice workshops, one for each gender. Ironically, she went with a guy, and afterwards they compared notes. The guy came out with one message in his brain: get a smart girl, the smartest you can, and get her quick! “It doesn’t matter if you’ve fancied the girl next door since you were seven; give it a month and you’ll be head over heels for your smart girlfriend.” The guy had asked the speaker if it was fair to ask anyone else out if you were still in love with the girl next door. The answer: “she’ll move you on and make you grow up.”

When I heard this, I smiled. And then I thought about it, and I got angry. For a start, intelligence is zero reflection on what it means to be a good girlfriend. And that got me wondering what the speaker had meant by ‘smart’. Not intellectual credibility, but feminine credibility. The smart women, the good girlfriends, are the ones who know how to satiate masculine vanity. Guys don’t go out looking for clever women—they avoid us! Guys take the hot ones, the ones who’ll use themselves to craft the great illusion. Women pretend that men have the power, hiding their own wiles and caprices and, in the event, giving men the power.

And that leads me to the message in the women’s workshop: be cute, always; make the man feel useful, always; keep him wanting, always. So the women go out worrying about how much make-up they’re wearing and how overt it would be if they bulked it up. They’re completely ignorant of the power they have over men, and what abusing that power does to society.

At first glance the messages in the two workshops seem to be a cross-purposes. It doesn’t take much to realise they’re objectifying and manipulating both genders as much as ever.

(Huh. Last night I ranted in my head for a decent twenty minutes. I should’ve let the muse run its course on paper. Still, please add your own thoughts and you might prompt the rest of mine!)

The Year of Funky Trousers

Tomorrow I commence my final year of school.

I should be quaking like an ant under a too-heavy crumb, marvelling at my great age, or panicking when I can’t feel its purported greatness. I should be looking in the mirror every five minutes to check I’m still the same person and not going to reverse my own growth cycle or spontaneously combust or break out in hives before tomorrow.

In reality, I’m sitting in front of my computer screen trying to conjure up some fragment of feeling. When I started driving a month ago I knew I wasn’t as scared as I should be. Some people curse out loud; I don’t even curse in my head. It’s like everything is distanced from me, happening only to the effigy I made of myself and not a breathing being.

Tomorrow I start my fourteenth of fourteen years of school!!! In a year’s time I’ll be leaving home, packing up and going to live overseas, completely on my own!!!

No matter how many exclamation marks I use, the hammer doesn’t drop. I trust it will; and probably at the least convenient time.

So instead of looking forward, under the pressure of being practical and trying desperately to freak out as I ought to be doing (??!!), I’ll look back and analyse what last year, my first year of Sixth Form, has given me.


Firstly, it’s been the best year since I turned a teenager.

Not because it hit all the ‘defining moments’ of teenage existence (well, not the stereotypical ones). No; this year I’ve been discovering Who I Am. When your brain is rearranging itself, you’re so many things at once we lose sight of our own identities, or never had them, but recently things have been coming together in my head.

A long time ago…

I was a goody-two-shoes, an admittedly sheltered youngest child. Either people liked me or they mocked me—but I don’t suppose I was great to mock, since I was too naïve to catch the mockery. I thought I was an animal-person, a nature-person.

As with most people, it all went wrong somewhere—perhaps not somewhere specific, but ‘go wrong’ ‘it’ did. The last day of Year 11 I still date as one of the happiest days of my life. Not because I especially hated school, but because study leave was the right thing for me. I’d waited years to get this—trusted to study alone, at home, independently, without anyone on my back (except my mum). I confess I spent more of study leave watching film commentaries than working (it was fantastic), but hey. Freedom!

Sixth Form is an extension of that independence.

The day exams finished I built a sculpture of eight aluminium chairs in the link. Notice only one of them touches the ground. Juvenile, I know.

The day exams finished I built a sculpture of eight aluminium chairs in the link. Notice only one of them touches the ground. Juvenile, I know.

Thanks to the abomination that was the new timetables, my lunchtimes and free periods never clashed with any of the lovely people I affect to call ‘friends’. So I worked/wrote/NaNo-ed without interruption; I sat on my own in ‘the link’, a glass bridge/corridor linking the main school to the Sixth Form Centre, where it’s quiet and airy, and I watch people going past and eavesdrop on their conversations.

Some people know I sit there. “You’re always here on your own,” they say, “you look lonely.”

Once that might’ve bothered me. Now I feel proud. I can sit alone in the link and not feel rubbish about myself—that’s one massive thing this year has given me.

Not having a uniform is another of the great things.

A year ago this terrified me. I didn’t have any smart clothes—nothing but jeans! I was scared about people thinking me a slob if I didn’t change outfit every day. As for the pressure of looking good in a new way EVERY. SINGLE. MORNING…

My crimson accessory kit!

My crimson accessory kit! (Yes, my hairdryer is modelling the hat.)

In reality, most people wear the same outfits two or three times a week, and you begin to associate them with certain garments, which is cool in itself. I went shoe-shopping for the first time ever, and am now known for my red: these gorgeous red leather clown-shoes (my first heels), red jacket made of some material with a satin-y sheen, translucent red glasses, red ‘20s-style hat. Oh, and long wavy red hair (but that’s natural). It’s self-expression, and so invigorating!

I never cared for clothes till six months ago; now I love finding new ways to make a skirt ‘work’.

It’s a common misconception that uniform equalises everyone. Well, in my experience it doesn’t, because if you have crap skin like me you’re dismissed. Now if I wear a lacy cardigan and a long skirt, I stand out anyway—it actually gives me a chance to be complimented.

So I’m rabbiting on about being content with my life because I’m secure in Who I Am, and you’re wondering Who the Hell I Am.

I’m the only Sixth Former and the only girl who goes to the bridge club, I have a protégé four years younger whom I love like a brother. I wear a rosary. I break conversations to squee about my subconscious solving a maths question. I’m known for cynicism, but I’m no longer scared of anyone younger than me, asking teachers awkward questions, or starting religious arguments. Finally, I’ve developed hand gestures the way island folk know best.

And this summer, I’ve learnt that I’m the kind of person who wears ‘funky’ trousers. I never knew—and I’ve certainly never had any wildly-patterned lower half garments—but…it’s just me.

My 'funky' buys of the summer. Left: a French Connection jacket reduced to £13 from £87 with a really groovy pattern. Middle: checked Mango trousers bought in Innsbruck, Austria. Right: Dorothy Perkins polyester trousers.

My ‘funky’ buys of the summer. Left: a French Connection jacket reduced to £13 from £87 with a really groovy pattern. Middle: checked Mango trousers bought in Innsbruck, Austria. Right: Dorothy Perkins polyester trousers.

New First Draft

WOOOOOP! Get the kazoos and streamers out because I just finished a new first draft!

MORE LOVELY THAN A CABBAGE PATCH (as it’s currently titled) is the YA Contemporary I blogged about at Christmas. The girl who’d rather sabotage the family business than brave her tyrannical father.

Yes, it really did take me that long to write it. I shelved it for the winter due to major overhauling on Drina’s story (79k and sticking, by the way), and took it to CampNaNoWriMo in April. ~42,000 words were written that month; then exams demanded my full attention till the end of June. I was computer-less most of July, and busy, as I have said, all August. So in the past five days I’ve pumped out the final 14k and met my target for finishing the first draft before the Autumn term.

Whew! To avoid tying myself up (because I have SO much to say about this MS) I’ve compiled a few questions for myself to answer (affected, I know).

Where did you get the idea?

I was in the shower (all the best ideas come through those pipes), contemplating my strictly-not-being anorexic, and how ill I’d felt the previous night when I tried to eat tea. I thanked my stars my computer isn’t in the kitchen as it was at the old house, and that I didn’t have to associate with food all the time. But what, I thought, if the family business were a bakery and it was my duty to knead dough and pipe cream simply for my self-respect? After the concept, the plot wrote itself.

How easy was it to write?

Because it was predominantly a NaNo project, I wouldn’t say ‘easy’ as much as ‘necessary’. But, in truth, I’d plotted so thoroughly it wasn’t a big deal. I’d stop writing in the middle of an intense scene so when I carried on the next day I wouldn’t have to build up the emotion in the writing again. It also meant I was turning the scene over and over in my head all night and all day at school, so I knew with what tone I had to resolve the chapter.

What do you love about the story?

SO much! I love how symmetrical the plot is; it’s like a parabola, where the y-axis is the place/event and the x-axis the changing role of Flavie, my MC. I love how the antagonist died before the story opens, and you don’t find out all her lies until the final few chapters. I love that family dynamics compose the body of the story; romance really isn’t the top of teenagers’ list of concerns, and Flavie’s still exploring it.

Flavie looking at life

Flavie looking at life

Which character was most fun to write?

Fran! Fran is the seventeen-year-old daughter of Flavie’s uncle’s neighbour. She’s unpredictable, cheerful in her own hypocrisy, finds wacky humour everywhere, and has a palpable effect on Flavie. Because at first she’s Flavie’s foil in terms of size and shape, she has the power to invert Flavie’s presumptions by proving they have the same problem, but Fran is the hero in terms of acting on it. Plus, she plays ukulele. 😉 So Fran’s the ideal me, and Flavie is the inclined me.

Now lose that kazoo! Remember I have to edit this manuscript sometime.