Bath Literature Festival

The last thing I need is more books. I already have a strict regular culling policy and have developed the ability to cross the road any time I happen to be passing a bookshop – just in case. You see, I have a problem. My name is Lou, and I love books.

Last week was Bath’s annual Literature Festival, sponsored by the Independent. I live in Bath. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

I have basically spent the last couple of days rolling around in books. It’s been marvellous.

I didn’t even go to that many events: the list of things I wanted to go to was as long as my arm, but many of them sold out long before I got a look in. Being new to Bath (and not terribly organised) I hadn’t realised just how much of a Thing the festival was.

Hint: it’s a Thing.

After a fair amount of dithering, I got myself sorted with some tickets to a couple of talks (sadly, one I had to miss at the last minute because of a deadline. Boo) and off I toddled.

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Announcing… SLEEPLESS

I’ve been sitting on this news for ages, and – as you can imagine – for someone as gobby as I am, it’s been a real challenge keeping quiet. But I’m told I don’t have to keep my mouth shut any longer (and if it turns out I’m wrong on that then we’ll just carry on and pretend that nothing ever happened, m’kay?).

It’s pretty common knowledge that I love horror – and having grown up on Point Horror and Christopher Pike books, I’m a big fan of horror in YA and teen literature in particular.

So… I’m delighted to announce that my first YA horror book, SLEEPLESS, will be published by Stripes Publishing later this year as one of the launch titles for their new Red Eye series.

I’m incredibly excited by the idea of writing YA horror, as it’s an area where there are fantastic books which I love – books like ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD, HOLLOW PIKE, DEPARTMENT 19… all of them properly frightening.  You can imagine how I felt about getting the chance to come up with my own.

And when Katie – my wonderful editor at Stripes – told me I didn’t have to worry about it being too scary… well. SLEEPLESS was the result.

SLEEPLESS

Don’t go to sleep…

With their wealthy parents and expensive homes in the exclusive Barbican complex at the heart of the City of London, Izzy Whedon and her friends at The Clerkenwell School seem like they have it all… but success comes at a price.

As the pressure of the upcoming exams gets too much, Izzy and the others resort to taking a “study drug” they find on the internet – and by the time they realise there are side effects, it’s already too late. When one of the group disappears, the others discover the horrifying truth behind their miracle pills.

Plagued by hallucinations and paranoia, they learn there’s only one way out: to stay awake until the drugs are out of their systems.

If, that is, they can last that long…..

Writing SLEEPLESS has been a huge amount of fun, and although I’m embarrassed to admit it I even managed to creep myself out a couple of times (how does that even work?).

The team at Stripes are awesome, and I knew that I was in safe hands with Katie when we spent a whole morning going over ideas and talking about terrible B-movies from the 1980s (for which I have an unashamed passion).

It’s also given me the chance to do something I’ve liked the idea of for a very long time – using the Barbican Estate as the setting for a novel. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a hulking great Brutalist complex of flats, walkways, gardens, tower blocks and restaurants. It’s best known for the hub of theatres, galleries and cinemas in the Barbican Centre, but it also contains a church, a lake, a library, a girls’ school, the Museum of London, two residents’ gardens, several playgrounds and the Guildhall School of Music – as well as miles and miles of labyrinthine walkways. It’s an easy place to get lost in, put it that way.What better setting could there be for a book like this one?

I’ll be posting more details and more about the world of SLEEPLESS further on down the line.

Huge thanks go to Stripes and my fabulous agent Juliet Mushens for making this possible.

And in the meantime? Whatever you do… don’t go to sleep.

Archer’s Goon

A little while back, SFX Magazine approached me and asked me whether I’d be interested in contributing to their regular “Book Club” feature. It runs at the back of every issue, focusing on a different book each time. And you know me. I like to talk about books. I particularly like to talk about books I like, and why they’re… y’know, awesome.

So of course I said yes, and the first book I’ll be discussing is ARCHER’S GOON by Diana Wynne Jones.

Funnily enough, it turns out this will be the 100th SFX Book Club, and given the current concern about level of representation female authors receive in the SFF world, it’s a wonderful coincidence. 100 feels like a significant number, somehow: and given the context of those two (brilliant) blogposts, it’s nice that the slot goes to a book by an outstanding fantasy writer who happens to be a woman, and whose loss is still felt so keenly by the genre.

The great thing about the Book Club is that it isn’t just me blathering on (after all, I do plenty of that here). So, if you’ve read ARCHER’S GOON, get in touch! You can comment on the book – did you love it / hate it / never read it because… – on the SFX forum, their Facebook page or via their Twitter, or you can always leave me a comment or tweet!

Those who can… teach

If you saw Dame Helen Mirren’s speech at the BAFTA awards, you’ll know what this is about.

 

— There will be a short interval to recover from the overwhelming awesome… and we’re back in the room —

 

The most important teacher I had was a lady called Sonja. I’ve long been forbidden from calling her “Miss Charles”, because she says it makes her feel old – but, like everyone who has been asked by one of their schoolteachers to call them by their first name, I still flinch internally every time I say it. It feels disrespectful, somehow, not to call your teacher by their “teacher name” – as though you’re now claiming to be their equal, their peer. Which you can’t ever be, because how could you? If you were lucky enough to have a teacher like that, you know that to some degree, they shaped you. They helped make you, and it doesn’t matter if you’re twenty or thirty or seventy – that teacher is always going to be your teacher.

Sonja was responsible for introducing me to Milton and Marlowe, and she steered and supported my flailing attempts to tackle Hamlet and Macbeth. She even put up with my turning in essays claiming Romeo & Juliet is actually a comedy (when I made it to university and sat through a lecture suggesting the same thing, I had to sit on my hand to stop myself from punching the air…) and patiently marked no fewer than three essays subtly* expressing my dislike of DH Lawrence’s books.

When I left school, we started to exchange letters every Christmas – and still do. In the intervening years, I’ve continued to learn from her – just as as I’ve learned about her. Now, I know her interests in medieval literature align very closely with my own (although she never let that slip when I was in school) and I know how kindhearted and generous she is. Sixteen years after I last saw her, I know more about her now than I did when I saw her every day… and I suppose that’s how it should be, because then she was a Teacher-with-a-capital-T.

She’s retired now, but I remember her as being unflinching in her support of her students. She was inspiring, she was strong and she was ridiculously well-read: every once in a while, even now, I’ll come across a book and think “Oh, that’s what she meant!” Like all old-school teachers, too, she had a stare that could drop unruly third-years across the yard, and a raised eyebrow which could (and frequently did) reduce strapping great big rugby guys to whimpering wrecks.

To this day, she remains incredibly supportive of me – and I only wish there was more I could do to repay her. If you care to look, you’ll find her in the acknowledgements of BLOOD AND FEATHERS, but it hardly seems like a fair trade-off. Without her, I don’t think I’d be where I am.

Sonja – Miss Charles – was my teacher, and I’m immeasurably grateful to her.

Who was yours?

 

(*not subtly)

Roses are Red…

Waterstones have been running a Valentine’s-inspired feature on their blog and across Twitter: they asked some brilliant authors to come up with their own Valentine poems, all beginning “Roses are red”.

You can read the results here, and look at the poetry that everyone on Twitter has been posting by searching the #rosesarered hashtag (although as is always the way on Twitter, you’ll get a jumble of other stuff on there too).

And of course I couldn’t resist joining in…

Roses are red,

Your lips have turned blue.

I thought you’d gone quiet -

Now what do I do..?

 

Haggis Lasagne

I’m not much in the habit of blogging about food (usually because I’m too busy stuffing it into my mouth to pause long enough to actually consider it) but I mentioned my husband’s plan to make haggis lasagne on Twitter over the weekend and… well, it seemed like it was a thing people liked the sound of. A lot.

So. I’m pleased to report that haggis lasagne, as a thing, works. It’s pretty easy to adapt a standard lasagne recipe to make it (there’s also a variation here, plus the Guardian’s article on ideas for leftover haggis) and we based ours roughly on my mother’s lasagne. I’ve probably left a dozen things out of the recipe, but you’ll get the idea…

Haggis

HAGGIS LASAGNE

 

- for the ragu -

2 shallots

1 stick celery

1 red pepper

1/2 green pepper

Handful cherry tomatoes, chopped

2 tins chopped tomatoes

Tomato puree

Flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Red wine

Worcestershire sauce

Haggis (we used two MacSween 3-person haggises – haggii? – which came to about 1kg in total)

Oregano

- for the béchamel sauce -

Butter

Flour

Milk

- to finish -

Lasagne sheets

Grated parmesan (or similar)

Nutmeg

Salt & pepper to taste

—-

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The Ghosts of Home

I guess I’ve always felt a little rootless. I grew up in a small town in west Wales, and when I left for university in London aged 17, I never really went back. Sure, I was back there for the holidays, but that was all: I didn’t really go back for weekends and it didn’t feel like I had to be there. Most of the people I’d grown up with had either headed off to their own universities, or stayed firmly put and rather viewed the rest of us as traitors for running off to The Big Assorted Smokes (which, when more than a few only went as far as Cardiff, seemed a little over-the-top…).

My parents moved to London (or back there, in their case) not long after I did, and the house I’d grown up in was sold. I looked at it on Streetview a year to two back. It looks different. A couple of years later, my grandparents moved to the West Country, and their old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere was sold too. As for my other grandparents’ house… well, I was living in that. Long story.

And then we sold that… and at almost exactly the same time, my mother died and I was adrift. There was nothing to anchor me, no place of safety. Nowhere to run to. Everywhere felt like a strange place and I was a stranger there. Time passed, and my father sold the flat where he’d lived with my mother and left London, and I moved again – this time from Brighton, where I’d moved literally the day before my mother died, to Bath.

I liked Brighton a lot – but I don’t think I ever managed to love it. I don’t think that was its fault, either: it had done nothing more than be the place my mother had (coincidentally) spent most of the last week of her life, and happen to be the place I was still surrounded by bags and boxes when she died. But something like that… I don’t know. It’s hard to shake.

Bath, quite without my knowing it, has become home. It has gravity. The good burghers of Bath would like you to think it has gravitas, too… but gravity’s more like it. It has something that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before. I live on the edge of the city, near the river, and look across a valley towards a hill very like the one my bedroom window looked over when I was a kid. The rain feels like the rain I remember from Wales: soft and drizzly and surprisingly wet, given how light it feels.

It’s not just the scenery here: it’s a beautiful town – more so, admittedly than where I grew up, which was a slightly rough-around-the-edges market town with half a fallen-down castle and the highest number of pubs per capita in all of Wales (and which has turned out a disproportionately high number of rugby and snooker players. Make of that what you will). It’s beautiful and it’s different and yet somehow, so much of it makes me think of “home”.

I still call it that if I’m not paying attention, Wales, even though it hasn’t been home for about half my life now – and my entire adulthood. I still call it that because I can still picture the walk from my old house into town. I still remember the stalls you’d pass if you took the shortcut through the market hall, and I still remember stopping to look at the calves standing in their pens outside the cattle mart on a Thursday afternoon after school.

I still remember the way up to the reservoirs at the top of town, where I spent more time than I should have. I remember the feel of the chains of the swings in the playground in my hands, wet from the rain. I remember the smell of the little bus stop opposite the church where I’d have to wait for the bus out to the village where my then-boyfriend was living – and always being at the stop twenty minutes early just in case, because there wouldn’t be another bus for an hour and a half. I remember the sound of shoes on the rubber matting on the ramp between the children’s and the adult section of the library, and I remember how the sky could be so grey it was almost blue, cut in half by the brightest rainbows you’ll ever see. I remember it all… but I know well enough that I can never go back.

The place that I call “home” when I’m feeling absentminded: it doesn’t exist any more. It never did. The memories are real, but you can’t point to a handful of memories on a map and call it a place. You can’t unpack a box of your things in a memory. It’s hiraeth, that most peculiarly Welsh of words (which, like “cwtch” makes instant sense to a Welshman, and defies exact explanation to everyone else… and apparently drives Autocorrect into an absolute frenzy into the bargain).

Hiraeth is homesickness, but not just for a place; for a time, for an idea. It’s nostalgia for an almost, a fairy-town glimpsed through mist across a river. It has no gravity because it’s made of gossamer.

Time moves forward and so do we – and like Pratchett’s proverbial turtle, we carry our worlds on our backs with us wherever we go. You can’t turn the world back.

Where I live now, it feels like home because it feels like it’s strong enough for roots. It can take an anchor.

I’m glad it can.

But I’m no good at dancing – and yet I have to do something…

Some years, you get to December and you look back at the 12 months that have gone before and you wonder how the hell you’re still standing. This is one of those – and, weirdly, seems to have been for so many people. (Was Mercury in retrograde or something?)

I could list the things that went right, or the things that went wrong – but then I’d probably just start laughing, because sometimes it’s the only thing you can do. I fell, and I got up again and I fell again and got up again so many times that I’ve kind of lost count. But each time I landed on my face, I learned something – and in the end, I’ve wound up on my feet and (hopefully) wiser for it. For every time I’ve put my faith in the wrong place, I’ve also come across the opposite: the person who changes everything and everyone they encounter for the better. Those people, rare as they are, are worth celebrating if you’re lucky enough to find them – and in that, I’ve been immensely fortunate.

For all the gloom and doom and grey days, there have been bonfires. There have been starlit nights and the smell of sunshine on sand, laughter and woodsmoke and hot air balloons. For every downpour, there’s been dancing (more than once, in the downpour) and for every wrong turning, there’s been the discovery of something new. If we don’t take a risk now and then, we stay where we are, never changing.

So take risks.

Be the one who steps up. Be the one who helps someone else up when they fall. Trust people. Watch for shooting stars. Hope. Listen to church bells. Chase rainbows. Sing. Run in the rain. Don’t be the person sitting in by the fire, telling your grandchildren about the time you almost

Don’t pick the flat wide road, the easy one. Pick the interesting one: the one with the mountains and the valleys and the crumbling cliff path – because when you get to the end of that one, you’ll be able to look back and see just how far you’ve travelled.

And in the meantime, there’s always this to close us out: one of my favourite tracks from one of my favourite albums I’ve heard this year, just for the sheer joy of it.

See you on the other side.

 

Merry Crispmouse

Christmas is coming, and we all have that one person who’s impossible to buy for, don’t we? The one who already has everything, or always says they don’t want anything. That one.

Well, here’s the solution. The gift for someone who has everything.

A taxidermy mouse chess set.

(Failing that, why not try the taxidermy Pulp Fiction rodents, or the utterly terrifying monster pendants -not taxidermy, before you ask…)