I started writing this in May, did a bit more in June, but by that point couldn’t remember what had transpired over the last couple of months… and as some of you may be aware, it’s now nearly the end of September. So this post is not forensic in its attention to detail.
What has gone on in the past 5 months? Loads. Got double vaccinated. Had a birthday and got some work done on the flat. Small person did magical development things, made me laugh and made me cry.
We commenced potty training, a journey full of twists and turns. The main takeaway I would impart to anyone who hasn’t done this but might need to, is not to assume that because they’ve got the hang of it once that’s your job done. All sorts of things can knock them off, including but not limited to:
- going to new places
- moving rooms at nursery
- being poorly
- being tired
- being very absorbed in a more interesting activity
- and/or being wide.
‘Writing Life’ has been a bit of a fail though. I did finish my mini course with Golden Egg in April, which was really great, and got some feedback from one of their editors in May. I submitted to the Write Mentor Children’s-Novel-in-Development Award (also in May) and got some lovely feedback at the start of July (a young reader said it was their favourite submission!). I didn’t make the longlist though, as the adult reader was less convinced. So I’ve not done nothing, but equally not made masses of progress.
I have my reasons, though. I’ve had intermittent brain fog, fatigue, hormonal fluctuations (that have by turns sent me into Anne of Green Gables-style Depths of Despair and made me suddenly incredibly angry), back pain that increasingly means sitting at a computer for any length of time is quite painful… all of which is to say, I am pregnant.
This is wonderful and intentional and I am happy and lucky and excited. But it definitely feels harder than it was the first time around. And it means I can’t take pain killers, or eat comfort food due to the return of Gestational Diabetes, so I haven’t done much writing/reading/thinking about writing.
I am a RAY OF SUNSHINE to live with just now.
Second time around has also really made me question that writing advice about forcing yourself to write every day. You’d write if you were actually serious about it, or variations on that theme, crop up a lot.
Sexist, ableist, classist bullshit, isn’t it really? There are loads of reasons you might not be physically or mentally able to write or even think about writing every day. Working on growing a person is my one currently, but what if you’re chronically ill or disabled, or working loads of hours to make ends meet (or indeed doing it unpaid to bring up a family) and are thus utterly gubbed for any downtime you have always? There will be hundreds of other reasons too.
So I retract my earlier comment. It’s not that my writing life has failed, more that I’m having to readjust my expectations of what success looks like.
As another key component of becoming a better writer is reading, I shall tell you which books I’ve read since April.
Some of these reviews are more in depth than others, because although I keep track of what I’ve read via Goodreads, I periodically skim or speed read and forget the detail almost immediately. Especially when I’m tired and my focus is off. Related: did you know some studies suggest pregnancy actually kills brain cells? Someone sent me an article on this the first time around, but I can’t remember where it was published. ANYWAY…
Monster Max and the Bobble Hat of Forgetting – Robin Bennett, illustrated by Tom Tinn-Didsbury
Max is a totally ordinary 9 year old boy but for one fairly crucial difference – when he burps, he turns into an enormous monster and rampages off on various adventures. He’s a nice kid and hopes to use this power for good, but unfortunately he has a nemesis named Peregrine who doesn’t see things quite the same way.
I read this book because it was recommended by Imogen Cooper during one of the webinars on my writing for children short course, she worked on it and it was interesting to get some insights into how the story developed. Monster Max has some very charming bits and doesn’t necessarily go in the direction you expect.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune – Nghi Vo
This is a fantastical novella about an exiled empress. It’s told as a story told within a story and it’s beautifully put together with I think what you’d call sumptuous world building – the level of historic detail and description is really richly imagined.
There’s an element of mystery at the heart of the book as you uncover what happened to the titular empress, there’s commentary on class and royalty, and there’s a magic bird.
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
Cath is going to college, but she has mixed feelings about it. Her twin sister (and closest friend) Wren has opted to share a room with someone else so Cath will be shoved in with a stranger. Their father has bipolar disorder and there’s nobody to look after him if he needs it, which sometimes he does if he has a manic episode. She has social anxiety, isn’t really sure how to make friends and has little patience for filtering her reactions to things. And she only has this year to finish her ‘Simon Snow’ fanfic if she wants to give the main characters the ending she and half the fandom want before the author publishes the real eighth and final book in the series.
Fangirl isn’t a book about fandom per se – we don’t see Cath interacting with the community or going to cons or using it to support her through these difficult times. It’s a coming of age novel about someone trying to balance a lot of different things in their life, of which fandom is one.
The best thing about this is the relationships between the characters, which are nicely developed. The snippets of Simon Snow – both the ‘real’ books and Cath’s fanfic – are fun too, as well as serving a few narrative functions including foreshadowing and bringing people together.
Picklewitch and Jack – Claire Barker, illustrated by Teemu Juhani
Jack is excited to move to his new house and start at his new school (St Immaculate’s School for the Gifted) and make new friends. But he hasn’t bargained on the witch living in his garden…
Picklewitch and Jack are polar opposites. She is scruffy, smelly and chaotic. He is neat, clean and hates getting in trouble. She rushes from one scheme to another, he plans in detail. The book explores the dynamics between the two, stressing Jack out until he realises that maybe having a friend so unlike him could be fun after all.
Picklewitch is a bit like a younger version of Pongwiffy, if any of you remember the Kaye Umansky series (I loved these as a kid). She’s utterly confident in herself and often blissfully unaware that her actions are getting Jack into trouble (although in fairness he doesn’t tell her). She argues with animals, loves cake, and lives in a tree. What more can you want from a best friend, really.
Future Girl – Asphyxia
This is presented as the art journal of a teenage girl so it’s a very beautiful and immersive thing to have in your hands. Piper McBride is 16, Deaf, and lives in a near future version of Melbourne where there are increasing shortages of everything – including the synthetic food the bulk of the population lives on.
Piper has been brought up by her mum (who can hear) to hide her deafness and pass as hearing which, before reading I did not realise is a pretty common thing. This means Piper has struggled along using hearing aids that cause headaches and make her miserable, and that she has no idea there’s a whole community with whom she has shared experience that could help her feel a lot less isolated. When she meets Marley, a child of Deaf Adults (or CODA), he starts to introduce her to that community. This kick starts a journey of self discovery involving rebellion and environmental politics, which she describes and illustrates along the way.
As well as having a coming of age, romance sort of element to it, this book taught me a lot. I’d recommend it for younger teens in particular, but people in general. Over the past couple of years I’ve been trying to get different perspectives and world views into my reading (not to mention social follows) and it’s been really illuminating and has informed my approach to a lot of stuff.
Finna – Nino Cipri
When another old lady slips through a portal to another dimension in a Swedish style furniture store (called LitenVärld, definitely not IKEA), it’s up to two minimum-wage employees to track her across the multiverse. Ava wasn’t even meant to be working today – and to add insult to injury, the colleague she’s been paired with on this journey is her ex, Jules.
This is a fun wee novella with SF elements, although the relationship between the two main characters and their experience of navigating mental health problems in a capitalist world determined to crush them is arguably more of a focal point.
The Emperor’s Babe – Bernadine Evaristo
Just Bernardine Evaristo exploring race, class and gender in a verse novel about a Sudanese child bride who falls for the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and becomes his mistress…
I don’t know that I would have picked this up on my own, but my folks gave me a ‘Books That Matter’ sub for Christmas and it came through that. Though written in verse it’s very readable, if that makes sense – I read it in about two nights I think. There are some great characters in there and I personally enjoy a clear reminder of how diverse society has in fact been throughout our entire history.
This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Two agents from opposing sides travel back and forth in time, changing the history of different worlds on behalf of their warring empires. Initially adversaries, each at the top of their game, they start leaving messages for one another and gradually become something else.
I listened to this one on Audible. My favourite parts were definitely the letters between Red and Blue – I sometimes found myself drifting during the build up of each chapter where they were describing a time period and how the letters come to be found. It’s very rich world building, clever and well crafted prose. I just wanted the emotional pay off, I think.
Everyday Magic – Jess Kidd
This is a cute wee middle grade adventure, which I heard about through some children’s book bloggers and authors shouting about it on Instagram.
When Alfie Blackstack is orphaned he goes off to live with two aunts he can barely remember in a village called Little Snoddington. They turn out to be witches, which would enough to be getting on with – but then the circus arrives in town, Alfie makes his first ever friend in the form of Calypso Fagan, her little sister Nova promptly goes missing and then they have to find her and stop a Witch War.
So plenty going on, good jokes and characters, a fun read.
How to be Autistic – Charlotte Amelia Poe
Well, they had a hard time growing up.
How to be Autistic follows artist Charlotte Amelia Poe through school and young adulthood as they recount their personal experiences of autism, mental illness, gender and sexual identity. Quite a tough read in places, but worth a look if only because this is not a life experience that often gets to take centre stage.
Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow – Benjamin Dean, illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat
Archie Albright’s parents have separated and his dad is acting weird. Mum too. They’re both keeping something from him, and he just wants everything to go back to normal. When his dad finally comes out as gay, Archie and his best friends Seb and Bell head off to the Pride March in London to figure out how he can fix his relationship with his dad again.
I’ve seen this book described a few times as a lovely big hug and it is honestly very joyful. Archie speaks directly to the reader and is a funny and sweet voice. There are some truly lovely supporting characters as well.
Goldilocks – Laura Lam
Speculative fiction fun, I liked this a lot. There’s mystery, interesting characters and a fair few turns.
Valerie Black is spearheading the first all-female mission to a planet in the Goldilocks Zone, where conditions are just right for human habitation.
She’s gathered the best women for the mission: an ace pilot who is one of the only astronauts ever to have gone to Mars; a brilliant engineer tasked with keeping the ship fully operational; and an experienced doctor to keep the crew alive. And then there’s Naomi Lovelace, Valerie’s surrogate daughter and the ship’s botanist, who has been waiting her whole life for an opportunity to step out of Valerie’s shadow and make a difference.
Trouble is that back on Earth things have got pretty Gilead, to the point that although Valerie was the one to fully plan the voyage, this is not the authorised crew. And when things start to go wrong on board, they have even more to worry about than their stolen ship…
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World – Elif Shafak
Honestly to start off with I was like oh noooo, this is not what I want to listen to just now – it’s going to be an absolutely brutal telling of the life of this woman who just CANNOT CATCH A BREAK. And it is.
However, it is ALSO beautifully written and I really loved the gear shift at the end when all the strands (and Leila’s friends) came together. I did cry several times but not all of them were out of sadness.
Look Both Ways – Jason Reynolds
Got a new Audible credit right as this won the Carnegie so it seemed the sensible thing to do. This is a series of short stories or vignettes following different kids on their walk home from school. Some of the chapters interconnect and give you extra context or character for the kids, others a bit less so. Some of the kids are fairly ordinary, others less so. You end up with an overview of the breadth of life and experience in a certain place at a certain time which is nice, and there’s a level of context and perspective that you can’t normally create in books for young readers cause the MO is to focus on your main character and their experience.
Amari and the Night Brothers – B.B. Alston
I LOVED THIS. One of my favourite reads so far this year.
The most obvious comparison to draw is that it’s a bit like a more modern, American version of that series about magic Daniel Radcliffe, except it addresses societal injustice and inequality head on rather than accepting it as normal and basically fine. But I don’t want to do B.B.Alston dirty by saying that’s all it is.
OK so, when Quinton Peters (golden boy of a low-income housing project who received full scholarship offers to two Ivy League schools, tutored local kids in the community and was generally wonderful) goes missing with no explanation, his younger sister Amari is furious that nobody seems to care.
This isn’t her only problem – she has a slight inferiority complex and reckons that her own academic success is largely down to being his little sister; she’s being bullied at the fancy school she’s also managed to get into, she feels a bit disconnected from her old community and neighbourhood since she started attending, and she feels like she has nobody to talk to about it properly with Quinton gone. So far, so emotionally invested in a realistic MC with complex emotions and a story that has a super strong sibling bond at the heart (long time readers may be aware this is my jam).
THEN she finds a ticking briefcase in Quinton’s old room and learns that he’s got her a tryout for a magical bureau and stuff gets weird. It is so well paced, the characters are great, you’re given many reasons to have Amari’s back and then to be OUTRAGED by some of the crap she is put through, there are twists and turns and uuuurgggh why did I not clock this was the first in a series in which the others have yet to be published. Highly recommend.
A Chorus Rises – Bethany C. Morrow
A sequel or companion piece to A Song Below Water which I listened to earlier in the year, telling Naema Bradshaw’s side of the story.
What’s great about this is the way it gets you to question or re-think your own prejudices. A lot of stuff was said about Naema in the first book from the perspective of her high school nemesis. But imagine for a sec you’re a teenager, and there are kids in school you don’t get on with, and you fight quite a bit but it’s kind of low key sniping and bitching rather than a full scale bullying scenario. And then imagine that the person you don’t get along with becomes a news sensation, uch. And then imagine that the media get wind of the fact you don’t like one another much, and start making you out to be some sort of villain.
It’s a smart twist on the first book, which made me think. Although on balance I still prefer the characters of Tavia and Effie (who appeal to my more nerdy tendencies as well as my stories about the bond between siblings), and the first book has the edge for me (having a magical mystery romp element to it alongside the real world stuff, whilst this is firmly rooted in reality and the politics of young folks on social media), I got where Naema was coming from. And you know what, she had some pretty great points. Excited to see what Bethany C.Morrow does next.