The Humans: 2013 365 Challenge #336

A very profound book

A very profound book

I finally started reading, and very quickly finished, The Humans by Matt Haig this weekend. If you haven’t come across the story (goodness knows how, as it flooded Twitter for a while during its release) it tells the story of an alien who comes to halt mathematical progress on Earth because Humans are deemed too violent to take the next step in technological evolution.

I was drawn to the book by its Twitter campaign and because I just happened to have read and enjoyed an early children’s book by the same author. The social media campaign was something truly incredible, with a lovely video trailer made by lots of different real people reciting lines from a part of the book called Advice for a Human (see picture below)

I started following Matt Haig’s blog, Twitter and Facebook, and found him to be a fascinating person, full of self-doubt and amazing insight, with a history of depression and attempted suicide. I couldn’t wait for the book to be released. I bought it in hardback (a thing I never do) and then bought the kindle version as well because I wanted to take it on holiday. That was in May of this year.

Since then I’ve tried to start it half a dozen times, but I just couldn’t get into it. The narrative voice is the alien, and the tone was so stilted and disinterestedly miserable, it put me off, even though I knew it was part of the story. Then, too, I started to feel pressure to love the book. Because the reviews were amazing, and because I liked the author as I came to know him through social media, I wanted to like the book, and felt bad that I didn’t. I had invested time and emotion into supporting its release and its author.

And then, worse of all, I started to disagree with some of what the author said on Facebook, and my faith took a wobble. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently, and is probably a topic for another blog post – about how our perception of a piece of art or literature changes when we come to know more about the author and was it maybe better when the author was hidden in mystery and unknowable. Anyway, as I say, that’s another post.

Some of the great advice (better read in context)

Some of the great advice (better read in context)

As a result of the emotional (and financial!) investment, though, I couldn’t give up on the book. So I started again on Friday, and couldn’t put it down. I read it with my fingers in my ears, while the kids decorated the Christmas tree. I finished it at 2am last night, leaving me groggy and grumpy for today’s family lunch. No matter: it was worth it. This is my (rather short) Goodreads review:

“It took me a long time to get into this story, after wanting to read it for months. I’m glad I persisted, it was so worth it. This is a deeply profound, yet funny and entertaining book, full of pearls of wisdom you’ll be desperate to share with people.”

As I read the story, I kept reading bits out to hubbie, much to his bemusement (that never works, especially when the recipient is playing Candy Crush or similar). It’s full of Tweetable bits of goodness. I could feel the author, and what I knew of his history, in every line, and it added to the authenticity, although I suspect it wasn’t necessary. The story rings true by itself. I wanted to find a nugget to share here, but there are so many. Instead I would say, read it. Even if, like me, you can’t warm to the alien and you find him annoying in the extreme. He grows on you. And it’s a book that will stay with you long after you read the last page. As an author I always think you can’t ask for more than that.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Thank you for letting us stay, Nana.” Alex’s voice wobbled between child and adult, as he gave Claire’s mum a rather formal embrace.

His face still showed the pallor of expended emotion; pale and drawn despite the tan he’d gained during his time in the South West. Claire wanted to pull him into a proper hug, one with feeling. The greeting they’d got from her parents was lukewarm at best.

I guess I wouldn’t like it if someone turned up on my doorstep and asked me to take in house guests. She thought about it and her lips twisted into a wry smile. Mind you, it’s no more than both my siblings have done to me this year. Suddenly Auntie Claire is the only one with all the time in the world.

She pushed away the bitter feelings, and turned to make sure Jack was alright. He’d been less affected by their father’s announcement, chattering excitedly on the long journey from Cornwall to Cambridgeshire. As they had neared their destination, however, he had become more subdued and, since their arrival, he had hovered in the background.

A quick glance showed her he wasn’t in the room and she went in search of him, leaving Alex to forge a stilted conversation with his nana. Her father, Claire noted, had also disappeared and Claire felt disappointed at his cowardice.

She found them both, eventually, hidden in her father’s study.

“There you are!”

Her voice made them jump and their faces flushed with guilt. She concealed a smile at how like naughty schoolboys they both looked, despite a gap of half a century between them.

“What are you two up to? You’ve left Alex battling on with Nana.”

“He’ll be fine,” Jack said brightly, “he’s good at charming the old biddies.” Then he realised what he’d said, and blanched.

Claire’s dad laughed – a loud guffaw – as much at Jack’s stricken expression, it seemed, as at his words.

“Don’t worry, son, your secret is safe with me. Your nana can be a tough nut to crack, but she’s soft underneath.”

Claire privately wondered if that were true, but said nothing. “So, what are you two doing?” She perched on the edge of the desk and looked at them with one eyebrow raised, her arms folded across her chest in an expression of severity that was all act. Seeing Jack locked away with her father gave her a warm glow of satisfaction, but there was a game afoot and she was prepared to play her part.

“Pops was showing me his book. Did you know he’d written a novel, Auntie Claire?”

Claire switched her gaze from Jack’s eager excitement to the look of sheepish guilt on her Dad’s face. “Is it finished then? I thought it was a thriller? It doesn’t sound like something a young boy should be reading.”

“Oh, Claire, I’m not a baby. I’ve read James Herbert and Stephen King.”

“Really?” Claire was genuinely shocked. Even she didn’t have the stomach for some of the more gruesome horrors. She wondered if she should forbid Jack from reading books liable to give him nightmares. Then she looked at his face and had a flash of realisation. Whatever difficulties in Jack’s life, he had yet to experience real fear and horror and so the stories were just stories. They probably had less impact on him than on an adult who could read the truth behind the fabrication.

Suddenly she grinned. “That’s amazing, Dad. I’m so proud of you. Can I read it, too?”

Her dad’s grin was as wide as hers. “I thought you’d never ask.”

*

Back in the lounge, Claire saw that Alex was manfully trying to engage her mum in conversation, and her heart went out to him. Even she struggled to find a topic of interest when talking to her mum.

As she walked in, her mum looked up, and her expression was honey-laced venom. Startled, Claire took a moment to gather herself, then said,

“Jack and Pops are in the study, Alex. Why don’t you go and see if they’d like some tea and cake? It’s been a long time since lunch.” They had been offered nothing on arrival. If her mum wasn’t going to play host, then she would show her how it should be done.

Alex jumped up like a man given a reprieve on death row, and practically ran from the room.

“Okay, Mum, out with it,” Claire said, as she heard his footsteps retreating down the hall. Her words took the wind from her mum’s anger, and Claire had to swallow a laugh.

“I’m surprised you have to ask. You turn up, unannounced, with Robert’s boys in tow, and without so much as a by-your-leave tell me that they’re staying here for an undetermined length of time, because you saw fit to send their father home. I think you have some explaining to do, young lady.”

“I’m not a child, Mum, you don’t need to take that tone. Robert’s behaviour was unacceptable. He arrived two hours late, with a chit of a girl on his arm, and announced he was engaged to her. His treatment of the boys is disgusting and he’s so far up his own arse they have to ship in daylight.”

“Claire! Really!” Her mother’s face went pale. Then her expression changed and she became a frail old woman. When she spoke, her voice was querulous “I don’t know why you’re shouting at me; it isn’t my fault.”

For a moment Claire was almost fooled. But not quite. “Oh, give over, Mum. Quit playing games, I’ve had enough of that from Robert.” She wanted to add that yes, it probably was her fault, at least in part. If she’d taken time to teach Robert some manners he might not be a total git. Realising such a discussion with her mother was an exercise in futility, she took a deep breath and controlled her temper with effort.

“Jack and Alex are your grandsons. You should be proud of them; they are amazing boys. If I could, I would keep them with me longer, but I have trespassed on Conor’s goodwill enough already. I’m only asking you to let them stay for a week; take them to see Ruth and Sky. Poor Jack doesn’t remember his cousin at all. They won’t be any trouble. I have money to buy their tickets, and I’ll contact Francesca and ask her to meet them at Stansted.”

Her mother’s face remained petulant and Claire snapped. “For God’s sake, Mum, don’t be such a cow. I know you couldn’t give a monkeys about me or Robert, and I doubt Ruth gets a look in now she’s got her life back on track, but this is your chance to make amends and be a decent human being. Why don’t you give it a try, you might find you like it?”

Before her mum could answer, Claire stalked from the room.

***

Book Reviews Again: 2013 365 Challenge #279

What I'm currently reading

What I’m currently reading

For a stubborn person I can be easily led. Present me with a reasoned argument, or merely an impassioned one, and I may well come round to your way of thinking. It’s not that I don’t have my own opinions, more that I don’t have faith in them. If you tell me I’m wrong, there’s a strong chance I might agree with you just because I’m used to being wrong.

That’s why I don’t read book reviews, especially for books I’ve read. I remember researching a post for this blog, and looking up Memoirs of a Geisha. I loved the book, but most of the reviews I read said it was historically and culturally inaccurate, yada yada. I felt bad for liking it – as if I had been fooled, gullible me, by the writing and led like a mindless sheep to an understanding of a culture that was inaccurate. (I’m a history graduate and I hate getting the facts wrong, even though I know there is no such thing as one right version of events)

I came across the problem again when I listed the book I’m currently reading on Goodreads – Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings – and happened to see some reviews.

I’ve read the book – the entire set of ten it is from – a dozen times. The characters were my friends when I had no others, (in the days before Facebook, Twitter and WordPress, when friends were found in books rather than online).

I’ve chosen to read it now to break me out of my critiquing cycle, like putting on a comfy sweater. So reading reviews calling it formulaic and lacking in originality was not what I needed to hear. What if it’s true? Does that make me somehow inferior for loving the book and being totally engrossed by the characters? What if I start picking faults? Like when someone points out your favourite actor has a funny nose (Buffy) and then you can’t see anything else and your favourite show is ruined forever.

Goodreads' change of policy post

Goodreads’ change of policy post

I read a post on Kristen Lamb’s blog a while ago about authors not writing reviews and it supported why I don’t like leaving reviews unless I loved, loved, loved a book. I do still write them for the indies that I enjoyed reading, particularly because indies need the support (and because I hope the karma will pass round to me one day!) But I do feel reviews are not all that helpful for books.

Shannon Thompson wrote a post on Facebook on Friday about the new Goodreads’ change in policy, saying she was upset to see people defending their right to be trolls. If all you want to do in a review is insult the author, then really what are reviews worth? (If you want to see our discussion on the subject, visit Shannon’s FB page.)

Anyway, I’m not sure of the point of my ramble except I’m trying hard to ignore the world and enjoy the book I have loved each of the last ten or eleven times I read it (though I am noticing the ‘telling rather than showing’ and the adverbs. It was the first book in the series, so I’m being tolerant!) I might even write a review explaining why I love it so much, but I can’t advise you to read it: what if you hated it? 🙂

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire brushed the curtain aside and peered round into the bay. Kim lay with her eyes closed and Jeff sat beside her, gripping her hand with both of his. He looked up at the movement.

“Claire! Welcome home.”

She pulled the curtain closed behind her and took a step forward. “Thanks, Jeff. I think you’re the only person pleased to see me.” Then, realising this wasn’t her drama, she forced a smile on her lips. “Kim’s looking better this morning.”

“Yes, your visit really helped. The nurse said she slept well for the first time last night. Just as well, someone from PLAN is coming in to see her soon.”

“PLAN?” Claire wondered for a moment if that was what Dotty had said she was working for, but couldn’t remember. She prayed the young girl wasn’t about to turn up here as well. An hour in the car had been more than enough time with her endless enthusiasm.

“Psychiatric Liaison people. To see if Kim is safe to come home, or whether she needs to go to a secure ward.”

“Oh.” Claire looked around for another chair and carried it over next to Jeff’s. “What do you think?”

Jeff dropped his head, although he didn’t let go of his wife’s hand. “I don’t know.” He exhaled loudly, as if breathing out his doubt. “What a mess. Who knew an accidental pregnancy could have such awful repercussions.”

Claire sat in silence, unwilling to probe. The weeks she’d spent gallivanting around New Zealand felt dirty, somehow, when she considered what Kim and Jeff had been going through in her absence.

As the silence stretched on, Claire tried to sift through the questions in her mind to find one that was safe to ask. How’s married life, or How’s work? weren’t exactly appropriate. She was just grateful that Jeff apparently felt no blame towards her for her own role in the catastrophe.

As if sensing her thoughts, Jeff raised his head finally. “It was never your fault, you know. I wish Michael had kept his stupid mouth shut, of course. It wasn’t the end to the wedding we had hoped for. Kim’s boss went off on one, with the whole cast taking sides. Kim took it well, though. Fought her own: said she’d sue him for being a misogynistic bastard if he took her role away.” He paused and a smile flickered across his face. “She was magnificent: you’d have been proud.” He sighed.

“It was all fine for a few days. Then she got cramps; she was in agony. When we got to the hospital they said it was too late.” His face crumpled and Claire realised, for the first time, that Kim wasn’t the only one who had lost a baby.

Jeff’s eyes were red when he raised his head to look at her. “And then when they said she couldn’t have any more kids. It broke her, you know. I didn’t realise she really wanted to be a mother – we never talked about it that much. Maybe you don’t realise you want something until someone tells you you can’t have it.”

He fell silent and they sat listening to the sound of Kim’s breathing. When Jeff spoke again his voice was low. “After that, she wasn’t Kim anymore. She cried all the time, at the tiniest thing: TV adverts, pictures of kids, pregnant women in the street. The doctors diagnosed her with depression and gave her some pills but she wouldn’t take them. Said they made her feel worse. And then …” He stopped.

Claire knew what happened next; she’d been there, in a manner of speaking. Her mind was full of words but none seemed adequate. How could you relate to someone who had been through so much? She wanted to do something to help. Whatever Jeff said, it was still partially her fault.

“If it helps with the psych assessment, I’m happy to come and stay for a while, look after Kim.”

“What about your job? I thought you were starting a new job this week?”

Claire thought guiltily about Conor, everything she owned him and how much he’d put his own neck on the line to hire her. She thought about how much she was looking forward to getting back to work, having a purpose again. Not to mention some money to pay off her credit cards.”

She shrugged. “It’s just a job.”

***

CreateSpace Distraction: 2013 365 Challenge #190

First Draft Create Space Cover

First Draft Create Space Cover

I derailed my intended work schedule today by reading a blog post, by Chris McMullen, on why it’s worth having a print-on-demand edition of your self-published book as well as an e-book.

My main reason for not producing print versions for Dragon Wraiths and Baby Blues is largely to do with effort. It’s harder to create a professional-looking paperback, and print-on-demand books are expensive for the consumer. I might find people willing to spend £2 on an ebook from an unknown author, but £8 or £10 for a paperback? That’s a much bigger leap of faith. I would actually be embarrassed to ask someone to pay that much, and would worry much more about my lack of professional editing.

Chris McMullen discusses some interesting reasons why it’s worth bothering with the pain of creating a print-on-demand version (e-books are a doddle by comparison.) 

1. Some customers only buy print copies. (This is true: my friend Hugh keeps asking when he can buy a print copy of my books).

2. If you link your CreateSpace book with your kindle version, it shows the kindle price as a discounted price against the paperback list price. This may aid ebook sales as the ebook looks like a bargain.

3. Having a printed version allows you to do a Goodreads giveaway. (This is something that has been bugging me for a while: that you can’t do a giveaway on Goodreads with an e-book voucher.)

4. You can sell the paperback version in person (for example through independent bookstores or maybe a book-signing event at your local library).

Chris lists other reasons, such as it is easier to edit a print book; a paperback is a must for press releases; paperbacks are great marketing tools: (you can’t see what people on the bus are reading on a kindle); and people are more likely to remember to review a paperback, if it’s visible in their house.

I liked this quote:

 If you give away copies of your book to friends and family, give them paperback editions, especially if they are likely to read in public places (“Guess what: I’m going on a trip this weekend,” “Really? How would you like a free book?”).

Bookcrossing. Set them free

Bookcrossing. Set them free

I love the idea of handing books out to people to read and then leave lying around somewhere, like your own personal Bookcrossing. (Have a look at the link if you haven’t heard of it: it’s brilliant! It’s all about leaving books in public places, like coffee shops and on buses. “If you love your books, let them go.”)

So, as I’m easily distracted and easily influenced, plus shattered from a hot and emotional weekend (I’ve just re-watched the Andy Murray documentary, that has been updated already with footage from yesterday’s match. Hence it’s nearly midnight and I’m only just getting to my post), I have spent all day formatting Baby Blues for Create Space.

Even though the book is with the proofreader, it isn’t wasted effort, as it takes several (loads of) attempts to get the book uploaded with the right pagination, guttering etc. Also, with the cover design, you have to know how many pages your book is to get the spine the correct width.

I’m not sure if I’m 100% happy with my final design, but it came out better than I could have hoped at lunch time! I may even order a copy so I have an original to compare against my proof-read version. Did I mention, I just love doing covers?!

Anyway, before I turn into a pumpkin I must think of something to happen to Claire. I can’t write it in the morning, we have to swing by nursery as soon as it opens and retrieve my daughter’s comfort toy which got left behind. Oops.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Well done.”

Ruth smiled, as Claire trudged into the lounge behind a skipping Sky and winced when the girl shrieked her greeting to her mother.

“You survived, then. What did you think of the Farm?” The look on Ruth’s face hovered somewhere between eager inquiry and amusement. “It’s one of my favourite places to go. I call it ‘Farm Calm’ because I relax as soon as we go through reception.”

Claire considered the amount of times she had lost Sky, who kept disappearing up ladders and down narrow paths between buildings, and thought calm was a long way from her main emotion. Sensing her sister’s need for approval, Claire dredged up some enthusiasm.

“It is beautiful. I loved the Mill House, and the goats are funny. Nice coffee, too.”

Claire remembered Sky’s tantrum in the coffee shop, after she’d insisted her niece have a piece of fruit with her cake. “The staff were friendly.” They didn’t chuck us out, that’s a bonus.

Slumping down into the armchair, Claire began to feel the effect of missing a night’s sleep.

“You look shattered, Claire. Was Sky a handful?”

In her mother’s arms, Sky began to protest that she had been on her best behaviour. Ignoring the blatant lie, Claire shook her head.

“No, Sky was fine. I’m just tired, that’s all.” She sensed Ruth’s response, and held her hands up to stall it. “I know, you feel worse. I didn’t sleep last night, and it’s catching up with me.”

“Oh, why?” Ruth leaned forwards, eager for gossip. Claire was tempted to fabricate something, but if her story entertained Ruth for a few minutes, then the weekend experience wasn’t a complete loss.

“Kim and Jeff got married yesterday and I made the mistake of letting Michael come as my date. We had a big showdown and he blurted out in front of everyone that Kim’s pregnant.” Oh, damn. There’s another person I’ve told. At least Ruth doesn’t know any of Kim’s friends.

Claire glanced up from mentally mapping the stains on the carpet, surprised that Ruth hadn’t responded. She let out a giggle at the expression of shocked amazement on her sister’s face. Eventually Ruth managed to find some words.

“Woah. Wait a minute. That’s like five episodes of Eastenders all at once. I don’t know where to start. I thought Kim and Jeff weren’t going to get married for years, or have children for that matter. And you and Michael? No wonder you haven’t slept.” She raised her eyebrows at Claire in a knowing way.

“I haven’t slept because I stormed out at midnight and drove to Mum’s from the Welsh border.”

Ruth’s face dropped into a frown, like a parody of theatre masks, grinning and scowling alternately. Suppressing a sigh, Claire realised she would have to start at the beginning, with Kim’s visit to Hunstanton while Sky was on her Easter vacation.

“Let me at least go and make a cup of tea first. It’s quite a long story.”

*

When Claire finished her story with her mother’s revelation, Ruth tutted.

“What a mess. I don’t know who is more daft: Michael for refusing to take no for an answer, Kim for getting into a paddy, or Mum for being so foolish as to think Dad’s having an affair. He’s got some secret project on that he won’t tell me about, but I know it involves spending time at the library because Sky and I have bumped into him there half a dozen times.”

Claire forced herself to hold her tongue. If their father hadn’t shared his secret with Ruth, it wasn’t her place to tell. She was surprised Ruth took her side over Michael, especially after her comment about the two of them being great together.

“I thought you’d be rooting for Michael.”

Ruth shook her head. “It’s your life, your body. If you don’t want children, then Michael needs to accept that, rather than keep trying to change your mind. Life’s too short.”

Her words made Claire shiver. For most people it was just a phrase, a reminder to not sweat the small stuff. For Ruth, it felt like a prophecy.

***