Join The Mockingjay Fellowship Army: A YA Geek’s Survival Guide for the Wars to Come

Fiction-all art in fact-holds a mirror up to reality.  That mirror may be painfully accurate or distorted by fantasy, but either way that mirror reflects truths of humanity.  It is where we find comfort and discomfort, the world as it is or as we wish it to be, a place of refuge and a place of strength. 

Like billions of people across the world, I am struggling to come to terms with the events which played out in America this week.  Before you turn away in boredom or disgust (though I assure you I would have the greatest sympathy if you did, for the internet is dark and full of terrors at this time), I urge you to place the results of the election into a wider context.  This is not just about Trump’s election.  It’s more about what his election says about our world.

We are entering into a period of “Interesting Times” and must brace ourselves for what is to come.  You have studied the events of the twentieth century I am sure, though it is unlikely that your high school history teacher was anywhere near as brilliant as mine (thank you, Mr Walters).  A clear grasp of the events which led to first World War I and then World War II is essential knowledge for us all at this time, so if you were not paying attention in class, go back and look over your notes again.  Better yet, photocopy the notes your Hermione Granger-type friend took and study those.

Taken in isolation at the time, not one of the key moments looked as if it could lead to the global horrors that followed.  Together they did.  It happened.  And if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that we are slow learners.  Every clock has a pendulum swinging back and forth-that is the nature of time. So, get ready.  The pendulum is about to go about as far to the right as it is able.

Read the news.  Look around you.  Pay attention.  Open your eyes, ears and mind to the new reality.  It ain’t pretty.  We are only days into the New Trump Order and already race hate, misogyny and homophobia are running rampant.  The Death Eaters are gearing up for a march toward Mordor.

Fortunately, we keen readers of YA Genre Fiction are uniquely prepared for just such a state of affairs.  All those delightful hours losing ourselves in the dystopian world of Panem, cheering on Dumbledore’s Army and following the terrifying journeys of The Fellowship are about to pay off.  These brilliant authors, these beloved characters and these rich tales of heroism were preparing us all along for difficult days.

The following is a survival guide for the wars to come.  I wish you good fortune.  I wish us all wisdom and fortitude to make it through.

thai-protesters-with-three-finger-salute-imitate-katnissRule Number One: Know the Real Enemy

When Katniss was in her second Arena, she did not know who to trust.  Haymitch’s words echoed in her head: “Remember who the real enemy is.”  The real enemy is probably not the person next to you who voted for Trump or whose parents voted for Trump.  The real enemy at the moment is the same enemy who always rears is ugly head at times like these: that three-headed hydra of Fear, Ignorance and Greed.

Ask yourself why did the middle of America vote for Trump in large numbers?   Why did working class voters in Britain vote for Brexit?  It’s too easy to say because they were stupid.  Ignorance is not the same as Stupidity.  Ignorance is a lack of knowledge and understanding, not a lack of brain power.  And it is easy to be ignorant when the popular press is all you read and it is telling you that immigrants took your jobs (sound familiar?  Daily Prophet anyone?).  The Greed and Ignorance heads of the hydra working together.

The greatest con being pulled right now is that immigrants are to blame for the economic and employment difficulties happening in the UK and the US.  But the real enemy is the greed of the wealthy business owners who moved their manufacturing to cheaper countries, bleeding the working class of their own countries dry.  These same greedy, wealthy business tycoons are also influencing or, in the case of Trump, running the governments which are convincing the people that immigrants are to blame.

Know the enemy.

 

Rule Number Two: Keep Your Friends Close.8cclhly

Frodo would not have made it to Mt Doom without Sam by his side.  Harry Potter needed Hermione and Ron.  Buffy needed her Scooby Gang. We won’t make it through this alone.

Make sure, however, that these friends are true friends.  Like-minded individuals who see the truth as you do and are determined to fight against it rather than give in to the popular opinion.  Prepare to be in the minority to start with.  You and your friends may be targeted.  Stick together.  Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Luna and Neville had Harry’s back when everyone thought he was lying about You Know Who.

Be that army.  

 

 

Rule Number Three: Stay True to Yourself

Lucy Pevensie, hero of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, is one of my favourite characters because she stuck by her truth even when her entire family thought she was a deluded liar.  She knew that she had gone through a wardrobe into a magical land to have tea with a talking fawn and no one could tell her otherwise.  She didn’t back down and question herself.  Popular opinion did not sway her.

If you can see the hate and lies swarming around you and you know it is wrong, stick by your truth.  Don’t compromise your principles just because everyone else thinks you’re crazy or stupid.  Bigotry is wrong no matter what.  Persecuting someone based on race or religion, gender or sexual orientation is just plain wrong and you know it is.

Even Katniss risks losing herself first to the Capitol’s blackmailing demands that she quell the rebellion by becoming their pawn, then by her own demons which threaten her sanity. “To thy ownself be true.”  See, your English teacher is right.  Shakespeare is relevant.

Know your truth. 

 

dumbledores_armyRule Number Four: Don’t Give in to The Dark Side

They may have cookies, but those cookies are poison.  Another of my favourite childhood books (which you should read if you haven’t yet) is Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark Trilogy.  In the second book, The Kestrel, hero Theo joins a rebellion for all the right reasons, but soon becomes a monster who nearly kills the woman he loves.  Seriously.  Go read these books.

The Dark Side is a bit of theme with YA Genre Fiction.  Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Buffy Summers, Frodo, Katniss-they all face the choice of becoming the very thing they despise.  In the end, they all choose the light.

By all means join the resistance.  Go to rallies.  Organise walk outs.  Protest to the rooftops.  But keep a clear set of guiding principles in mind.  When in doubt, think on this: do you really want your good cause to be won through bad actions?

Don’t give in. 

 

Rule Number Five: Take Time for Joy

I believe, as do many others, that we are in for some hard times head.  The way might be dark and difficult, full of hard choices and ugly events.  But even in the midst of all this, take time to be happy.  Dance  at a wedding with your little sister.  Fall in love with your best friend’s little sister.  Celebrate birthdays even when the vampires are assembling a doomsday monster.  Play sports, eat great food, take lots of selfies to mark these precious moments spent with those you love.  Otherwise, what are you fighting for?

Live for joy. 

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Tea with Cecily

The following excerpt from my Young Adult horror novel in progress, The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, is accompanied by the artwork of illustrator Elizabeth Snider.

Recently deceased Mia Walsh makes her way to The Church of All Hallowed Souls in an attempt to confront her father (the vicar) over his accusations against her (sort of) ex-boyfriend.  She is accompanied by long-time ghostly resident and would-be post-mortem mentor, the Victorian poltergeist Floretta Deliverance Hughes.  Whilst hiding from her mother behind a gravestone, Mia comes face to face with a nightmare named Cecily.

CecilywebLater, Mia would not remember if she had screamed or not.  Perhaps she had been too terrified even to rely on what had rapidly become her post-mortem, knee-jerk reaction to most things.  The face of the girl in the churchyard with the sing-song voice definitely made her want to scream.  Once the girl might have been pretty with her long golden curls, creamy skin, ripe, peachy mouth.  But something terrible must have happened to that lovely girl.  Some tragedy had drained her former beauty.  And her eyes.

Where are her eyes?

They looked as if they had been gouged out with a pair of forceful thumbs or plucked out with hot pincers or—  Mia didn’t’ care to consider any more horrific alternatives.  No evidence of past trauma there now—no marks or scars or weeping blood at all.  But no eyes.

Wait.  Mia looked more closely.  There were eyes down there somewhere.  Very deeply set and very small.  Like tiny jet beads on a black dress.  Maybe the horrible thing that happened to this nightmare girl had been too much for her eyes to cope with and they shrank, retreated as far back into her skull as they could.   All around the pin-prick, bead-black eyes were rough charcoal smudges of flesh, indigo, purple and black, which swept between the curves of her blonde eyebrows and the apple blush of her cheeks.  Twin bruises swirling toward two, twinkling dark stars in a vortex of horror.

Mother: a excerpt from The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes

229038_10150232086718659_724701_nIn honour of Mothering Sunday, here’s a totally appropriate and not at all creep-tastic excerpt from my work in progress YA Horror Novel The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes.  And happy Mother’s Day to my own dear Mama. xox

 

From the archives of St Becket’s Church of England School, 1963

Priscilla Reid never heard anyone actually say: “The Old Cloakroom is haunted.”  Neither did anyone enter it, unless they were being dared to.  It was difficult to put a finger on why.  The room just felt wrong.  Dark, cold, vacant and solitary but somehow crowded and exposed.  Perhaps it was the spectre of time which made the room eerie.  All the things that had happened here, all the people who had passed through.  Six hundred years of joy and misery and fear and laughter captured in stone. Yet no other place in the original wing of St Becket’s School had the same feeling of wrongness, though they were all just as ancient.

Priscilla began to feel the effects of the room from halfway down the corridor.  It pulled goose pimples from the flesh on her arms and back and neck.  She’d left her cardigan at her desk back in the library.  The light dimmed.  Priscilla’s pulse quickened.

Don’t be daft.  It’s just an empty room. Nothing here but a frightened girl’s satchel with an overdue book in it.

Swallowing her fear she carried on into the cloakroom.  Whoever took Delia Jackson’s bag did a proper job of it.  The little canvas satchel lay crumpled in the far corner at the very end of a long row of those eerily empty coat pegs.  The thief must have thrown it from around the corner—hard enough to crush a plum Delia must have been saving to eat on her way home from school.  Dark, purple liquid seeped through the light beige fabric of the bag, staining it like blood.

Priscilla felt a strange, swooping sensation in her stomach.  As if the floor had just dropped from under her and she was falling from a great height, the wind pulling at her hair and her dress, making the bow of her collar flap against her chin.  Against the dizzying wave of nausea, Priscilla squeezed her eyes shut.  Little lights bloomed behind her eye lids: black then white then red. Bright, glowing, blazing red.  She forced her eyes open and all was still again—only the corridor and the cloakroom beyond.

Run.  Just run and grab it and run back out and hope no one is waiting at the opposite end of the hall to see you looking stupid. Her feet refused to obey.  Right, on the count of three then: one, two, three!

Priscilla pushed off from the stone wall, pelted into the freezing cold air past the empty coat pegs to the far end of the darkened cloakroom.  She gathered Delia’s satchel into her arms.  Spinning on her heel she launched herself back to the safety of the corridor.  Then, in the middle of the very wrong, very old cloakroom, she froze.

The bag moved.

Priscilla held her breath and waited.  Perhaps she had only imagined it.  The bag twitched again.  Then a third time before it began to squirm.

The bag thrashed wildly in her arms as if it didn’t want to be held.  Had Delia brought a cat to school?  Hidden in her bag?  Is that why she was too frightened to collect it?  She looked down at the canvas satchel.  Its light beige fabric blended with the skin on her arms.  The same colour, the same texture, the same—flesh!

The bag cried out.  A high, insistent, piercing wail instantly recognisable to any parent.  Priscilla opened her trembling arms and an infant’s face stared back at her, red mouth opened wide in an angry howl.  Its tiny fists and feet flailed.  Its spine stiffened and curled, stiffened and curled in a writhing motion.  The stain on the fabric of the bag was not from a squashed plum. It was a layer of blood which coated the new-born skin of the crying baby.

A sharp pain took root deep inside her, awakening a memory she had hoped would stay forever dormant.  It rose up from the secret place where Priscilla had hidden that horrible, wonderful, painful moment pulled from her at last by a high, insistent, infant cry.  The cry of her son.

That was all we had, wasn’t it?  One moment of wailing together before they took you from me, my darling boy. 

Maternal instinct moved her to stroke the infant’s fine blonde hair, damp and slightly pink with natal blood.  Tears streamed down Priscilla’s face for several moments, until a though occurred to her and she jerked back to look properly at the baby in her arms.

Blonde?  No.  Not blonde.  Her boy had most certainly not been blonde.  His hair and eyes and skin had been dark.  Like his father’s.

In response to her touch and her thoughts, the baby began to change.  Its flesh darkened, staining baby peach skin to a rich teak.  Fair and fluffy hair thickened, coarsened and blackened around her pale fingers until the babe in her arms became the son she’d known all too briefly.

My boy.  My darling, forbidden Indian boy.   

Unable to stop herself, she leaned down to plant a kiss on the dusky forehead of the squalling, bloody infant. The secret, thrice-cursed son she’d given away because he’d been born to the wrong parents in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But here he was in her arms at last.

‘Have you been here all this time, my son?  Is this where they brought you?  Were you waiting for me?  Were you, lad?’

In between questions she peppered him with kisses.  Gurgling happily, the flailing baby’s hands playfully they knocked aside the librarian’s tortoiseshell, cats-eye glasses.  Then tiny brown fingers grabbed fistfuls of Priscilla’s smooth, blonde locks and pulled with fierce tenacity.  The infant screams grew louder, wilder, sounding less like a baby and more like some enraged predator.  Priscilla tried to pull away but the baby’s grip was strong.  The sensible thing would be to release her hold on it, to let it drop to the floor.  But she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

‘This time I will never let you go.’

She held tightly to the baby and the baby held onto her, then Priscilla looked once more into her infant’s eyes.  The features changed again.  Dark eyes warm and cocoa soft hardened into something black, dilated, pupiless.  The mouth was no toothless, squalling maw either.  As the baby screamed one last time, Priscilla saw rows of razor sharp teeth.  The jaws of the baby opened wider and wider, impossibly wide. It seemed as if it would consume her head-first like a python.

That’s when she finally dropped the baby.  Priscilla staggered, blind with terror, determined to get out of the Old Cloakroom.  Her heart raced and she struggled to breath.  Something constricted her windpipe.  She moved her hand up to her neck and ten tiny fingers wrapped themselves around her.  The baby—or the thing that looked like a baby—clung to Priscilla’s back its arms and fingers clutching tightly about her neck in macabre imitation of a piggy back ride.

Don’t leave me, Mother.’  The baby whispered in Priscilla’s ear.  ‘Not again.’  Phantom tears dripped from its dilated pupils and fell icy hard on the librarian’s shoulders.  ‘Mother.  Please.  Help me.’

The infant’s tiny arms wrapped desperately about Priscilla’s neck in a ferocious embrace.  She stumbled to the stone floor at the edge for the Old Cloakroom.  The world began to spin.  Her heart began to slow.  Still the phantom bag baby held her, its terrified cries deafening as they echoed in the empty cloakroom.  Priscilla Reid clawed feebly at her neck and back hoping to pull the creature off.  Her fingers found a rope wrapped tight as a noose around her throat.  The baby was gone now.  Or she was the baby?  Priscilla wasn’t sure.  She only knew that she was being strangled.

Everything went dark and cold.  For several long moments, a silence fell around The Old Cloakroom, like a soundless shroud smothering the corpse of Priscilla Reid, school librarian.

In a far corner of the cloakroom sparked a red light, like a match being lit.  The flame burst and bloomed like a scarlet rose bud.  The glowing ember rose bloomed and stretched, its petals curling upwards, billowing in a ghostly breeze.  Its leaves puffed up then out ballooning in a fiery expanse of flowery embroidery.  The rose of red curls and billowing floral silk wafted over toward the fallen woman and the squalling, phantom infant.

‘You.’  The glowing rose scowled at the infant phantom cuddled beside the dead librarian.  ‘You swore to me you weren’t going to do that anymore.’  The red light of the rose burned hot.  ‘What shall I do with you, infant?’

At Mid-summer Shall I Rise

The following is an extract from the first chapter of my second novel Dead Maiden’s Book of Songs in which ghosts of the past haunt the Yorkshire town of Burly-the-Wath while a coven of witches rise to try and put things right.

Illustration by Elizabeth Snider.

From A Tudor Maiden’s Book of Psalms archived by St Becket’s Church of England Grammar School. 

Burly-the-Wath. 22nd June, 1563

Each morn I do offre up to Him above my soul.  At Mid night will I rise for mine deare Lord pryserving me from below.  At noon I cry out sweete lamments to heaven do I pray. Morning, evening and at non His hand showeth me the wey.

 

936064_10204460520659337_6242712851193932157_nA needle cannot thread itself.  Cecilia knew this.  Thread was a length of wool; needle was made of bone.  Both needed a hand to work them.  She tried without success to thread her needle with tender fingers which had not yet lost the plumpness of childhood.

The needle drew first blood.  It pricked Cecilia’s palm.  Disgusted she threw needle and thread to the floor where both became lost in the rushes.  She sucked the blood welling in her hand.  If I cannot school my fingers to be dextrous,she thought, my whole life shall be spent licking wounds.

At that moment the needle chose to obey.  Acting of its own power, needle surrendered to thread like a maiden to her lord.  They rose from the rushes as one and lay meekly in Cecilia’s lap ready to sew.

She looked about to make certain no one had seen.  Fortune was with her, the small brown mouse she fed on kitchen scraps.  Happily no one else was.

‘Fortune be always with me,’ she chanted to the brown mouse.

It was hardly her first experience with unnatural phenomenon.  Objects flew, water jug refilled themselves, candles lit without benefit of flame.  Cecilia wondered if these things were only in her head.  She prayed they were.

Throughout the normal course of her days, Cecilia Norvyle tried not to draw attention.  A thorny challenge considering all of Burly-the-Wath watched her, wary for signs of devilry or witchcraft.  The townsfolk thought her a changeling the fairies might reclaim any moment.  Because Cecilia was the daughter of a priest.

The king and his reformed religion allowed its leaders to marry and have children.  But kings, religions and reforms were fleeting things nowadays.  Under the old queen, Cecilia’s family had been forced into temporary exile in Flanders, but the new queen’s tolerance brought them home again.  Legitimate daughter of a new faith father.  Folk of Burrdale parish knew this.  But knowing a thing and believing a thing are not the same thing.

‘Give me to the church,’ Cecilia often begged.  ‘Let me devote myself to God.’

Less than a day’s journey was the Abbey of St Margaret.  There Cecilia might spend her days in sheltered seclusion.  Perhaps God would cure her of the strange and wondrous things she did and saw and dreamt.  But her parents had already buried three sons and Cecilia’s infant twin sister.  They would not be parted from their last surviving child.

Thus condemned, Cecilia strove not to bother anyone; to appear and behave as a pious and modest maid.  She dressed in simple clothes, kept close to hearth and home and never revealed she could read or write.  She kept her unusually deep blue eyes lowered—a singular violet in a field of green-brown and blue-grey.

Her only companion besides Fortune the Mouse was a nomadic cat.  Full black he was but for the hind legs which were pure white and of a slightly shaggier fur; his body large, lean and strangely muscular.  A true brute of a beast to anyone save Cecilia.  The cat growled defensively at every parishioner who made a sign against the evil eye behind the back of the priest’s daughter.

‘You wear saint’s greaves ‘neath your dark armour, sir,’ Cecilia told him, tickling the white ruff of fur at the cat’s heels.  ‘You are my Archangel,’ she whispered as he rubbed his ebony head against her.  ‘My Michael.’

It was a sad truth of Cecilia’s lie that her sole companions, Fortune the Mouse and Michael the Cat, could never meet for fear one might consume the other.

The summer of her fifteenth year broke out in pansies and primroses.  Cecilia began work on a gown for the Midsummer festival.  She looked forward every year to the Feast of St John, where so many curiosities abounded no one would notice her.  People dressed in fantastical costumes: sometimes as mythical creatures, sometimes garbed only in floral garlands.  Churchman, ploughman, trader, shepherd and pauper would parade the streets with torches and tankards of ale playing music as they went.

For one day she put modest dress aside.  With Mistress Norvyle’s guidance Cecilia altered her mother’s old silk and linen gown of willow green, shaping it to her younger body, embroidering it with violets, ivy and musk roses.  On the morning of the festival she wove fresh versions of these flowers in her waist-length honey-coloured hair.

Is this wise?  Shall I draw attention to myself?  What if something unnatural should occur?  Yet everyone will be laughing and feasting.  None will give me a second glance. 

One did.

He was an Unfortunate from the church school.  That’s what folk in town called them: The Unfortunates.  Some of the boys, Cecilia knew, turned the slander into a title.

He looked to be of a similar age as she, fifteen or sixteen years.  Beneath full white linen breeches his legs and feet were bare.  His ruddy chest was bare as well.  Ropes of ivy draped about him like some savage warrior.  His thick, brown curls were flecked with daisies and meadow sweet.

Cecilia couldn’t help admiring the young man.  When he caught her looking at him, his radiant smile nearly made her weep with longing.   Laughing, he took her by the hand and led her along the parade route.  Cecilia laughed with him as they followed the river, crossed the Bridge of Souls and finished in the churchyard.  The whole of Burly-the-Wath seemed to laugh with them.

‘They call me Tom.’  He did not let go of her hand.  ‘Tom o’ the Streets.  Or some call me Tommy Street.’

Cecilia couldn’t speak.  He held her hand and his sun-baked chest was bare.  He had flowers in his hair.  She couldn’t say a word.   She could only smile.

‘You’re Father Norvyle’s girl,’ said Tom.  Cecilia nodded.  ‘I seen you before.’  Cecilia blushed.  ‘But you never see me.’  Cecilia frowned.

‘I see you,’ she protested.

‘Aye,’ grinned Tom.  ‘Your Mam sees me too.’

Tom nodded over her shoulder.  Catherine Norvyle glared at the two of them across the churchyard of All Hallowed Souls.  Before Cecilia could turn to look, Tom pulled her behind a yew tree growing beside an ancient tomb dark with age.

‘Tell me your name,’ he begged.  ‘No one will tell me.  Maybe nobody knows.  Please.  Just tell me your name.’

Cecilia fought to remember how to form words, struggled to find her breath to make the sound he wanted.  She felt faint and leaned back against the lichen stained tomb closing her violet eyes.  Deep inside a voice unlike her own stuttered a version of her name.

‘C-C-Celia.’  Her body exhaled to him in hesitant gusts.

‘Celia.’  He inhaled the sound deeply, as if her name were a rare fragrance he remembered from long ago.

Against the hard stone tomb the boy variously called Tom pressed his hands into those of the girl he knew as Celia.  Beneath their twined fingers the tomb’s wall pulsed hard once, then again in a softer echo.  Like a heartbeat.  Awake and alive.

Elsewhere in the churchyard the black ears of a cat called Michael flickered to attention and a white-breasted bird took flight.


 

Adequate Drain

Venus_de_Milo_Louvre_Ma399_n7This story is a definite departure from my usual: not set in Yorkshire, first person and real damn short. Shortest story I’ve ever written. As always, feedback is welcome!

I freaking hate locker rooms.  But where else am I supposed to go?  There’s an abattoir in Farmer City.  But I can’t, like, bike twenty miles to Famer City.  And what would I say: “hey, nice slaughter house—mind if I use it?”  Unlikely.

An adequate drain is crucial and this is the best place I could think of.  Call it lack of imagination.  Maybe I crave familiarity.  Maybe I like to punish myself.  Who am I kidding?  I so like to punish myself.

The school is dark and quiet after hours.  Creepy.  It shouldn’t be really.  Not to me.  What’ve I got to be scared of?  Bet we’re hard-wired to find silent darkness unsettling.  Evolution and crap.  Survival of the scaredest.  See, I pay attention in Bio.

Anyway.  Time’s wasting.  I look around.

“You’re alone, stupid.”

Force of habit.  Girls strip off while covering up.  Hide behind towels, sweaters, locker doors trying not to notice each other.  Like we can help noticing.  Comparing.  I don’t compare well.  Yet.

I peel my clothes off.  I’m sweating so bad everything sticks.  I take the picture, the bottle, and Michelangelo to the shower stall.  No cubicles obviously.  Health and safety!  God forbid teenage girls get privacy.  But boy howdy I got drainage.  I’m all about adequate drainage.

The girl in the picture looks like a bitch.  But there’s no mirror in the showers.  Obviously.  So picture bitch is my point of reference.  Every sculptor needs a model, right?  I set the bottle down, blue tack picture bitch to the chipped tile surround of the shower stall and pick up Michelangelo.  My tool.  My muse.  Or am I his?

My art teacher once said Michelangelo, started with a big, shapeless slab of marble.  Bit by bit he chipped away the excess until tadah: David.  Really, that’s all I’m trying to do.  Make me a David.  Be like Michelangelo.   I should have a wristband: “WWMD?”

I first wanted to use Mom’s fabric scissors.  Number of times I’ve watched her cut patterns to make something new.  Thick concentric lines on wispy thin paper indicating different sizes.  That’s what I’m doing really.  Cutting a new pattern.  Resizing.  Mom would totally kill me if I used her sewing scissors for this.  I’m not fabric.

I take up the knife/chisel I call Michelangelo and look down at the marbled slab of me.  Yesterday was legs.  Night before that belly and butt.  Tonight’s all about arms.

I don’t think anyone’s noticed yet.  But that’s the point.  I could do this all at once.  Get it over with.  If only!  Dramatic, overnight change wouldn’t go unnoticed.  Mom would notice.  She would freak.  Freak at her daughter the freak.

So I play the long game.  Small changes.  Piece at a time.

Right arm first.  Like painting your nails.  You’re meant to start by using your off-hand.  No idea why.  I make a fist and shake, letting the flab settle.  Man that’s gross.

Not for long.

I look at picture bitch.  Perfectly shaped arms flop in a lazy cross over her blonde head.  I angle the carving knife at my elbow and work down.

Michelangelo might be my muse but when I’m working I can’t think of myself as a sculptor.  I pretend I’m shaving.  Because that’s what it is really.  Shaving off pieces of me.  Can’t say it doesn’t hurt like hell though.  Cause it does.  But not for long.

By the time the knife carves out the curve of my armpit I’m already healing.  Severed halves of upper-arm puppy fat wriggle and struggle to reunite.  My flesh meets in desperate wrinkles like plastic wrap that just has to cling to itself.  But there is less of it now.  Less flesh.  Less fat.  Less clinging to me.

Lots of blood though.  Hence the need for drainage.  Hey!  I used the word “hence” in a sentence.  Thanks English teacher!  I have to sit down though.  Just til the throbbing stops which doesn’t take long.  I heal fast.  Obviously.

Meanwhile: bottle time.  I unscrew the safety cap on the acid.  Beside the enormous drain hole of the shower stall lies the triangular chunk of my discarded, disconnected flesh.  I half expect it to flop like a fish out of water.  But it doesn’t.  It just lies there.  I dribble acid carefully over the ex-piece of my arm which hisses then bubbles.  The acid gobbles up my tasty arm fat before trickling down the drain.

Yum.

I wonder, not for the first time, if somewhere in the bowels of Greenup County is a sewage monster made of my cast-off flesh.  As quickly as I heal it would not surprise me.  What if it comes looking for me someday?  A great, white whale of sewage waste.  Moby Dick seeking Ahab.  I really don’t want to be Ahab. We read it in lit class.  It doesn’t end well for him.

Throbbing subsides and I work my left arm now.  It’s not like ear piercing: do one and it hurts so freaking bad you can’t face the second.  This is more like: one down so what’s the diff?  I’m used to it and I try to see the bigger picture.  Or should I say the smaller picture?

Smaller picture of myself.  Concentric circles of me.  Cutting out my pattern.  Paring me down.  Piece at a time.

But I will heal.  I heal fast.  Freak-sician freaking heal thyself.

 

 

 

Great YA Couples

images (2)With The Fault in Our Stars about to fall on cinemas across the world, fans of the beloved novel are queueing up and Kleenex is cleaning up.  I haven’t decided if I can or should go yet.  At first, I was worried because I love this book so much and couldn’t bear another Golden Compass horror.  But even John Green has blessed the film and praised its stars.  Now my hesitation is more about preserving my mental health than my sense of literary integrity.  I still have not fully recovered from Les Miserables.

The film has also generated a fair amount of discussion on great YA fictional couples.  Who are the great YA fictional couples?  What makes them so memorable for us?  How do they manage to stir our hearts and other parts so thoroughly?  I like a good love story as much as anyone and probably far more than some.  Love makes for rich motivation and objective in a story.  Romance gets the reader on your protagonist’s side.  For young adult readers, it can also have a profound impact on developing their understanding of emotion, sexuality and their sense of self.

Previously in this blog, I have expressed emphatically the need for sex-positive heroines in YA fiction.  I made vague reference to a few characters whom I believe embody those qualities in a way which nurtures young readers.  Now I want to explore which couples have made a real impact on me as a keen reader of YA fiction.  Some of these characters I discovered when I was, shall we say, a part of the target audience and some have come to me as an adult fan of YA/Cross-over books.  My favourite twelve YA fiction couples.

MINOR SPOILER ALERTS

 

1)      Will & Lyra from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. 

If you have not read this trilogy run don’t walk to your nearest book store now because it’s a life-changer.  The relationship between Will and Lyra builds slowly, beautifully over the course of two books.  When they eventually get together it’s sweet, tender joyful, awkward, sexy.  And if you want tragic agony forget Romeo and Juliet or Hazel and Augustus—these two take the prize.

 

2)      Hazel & Augustus from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

 Eighteen-year-old me would have flatly refused to read this book.  I would never have picked up Twilight either.  My adolescent logic would have gone something like this: Everyone is reading it, Everyone is talking about, Everyone has probably just seen the film and not even touched the book, Everyone is a lying poseur ergo I will not read it.  Eighteen-year-old me would have missed out because teen me didn’t always realise that some things are popular for a reason.  This is popular for a reason.  Yes, it is heart-breaking and I sobbed many times—which is embarrassing if you’re listening to an audiobook whilst shopping in Sainsburys.  But it’s also funny and honest and so very smart.  Run don’t walk.

 

3)      Harry & Cho from The Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling.download (1)

What?  Harry & Cho?  Not Ron & Hermione?  Not Harry & Ginny?  Nope.  Harry & Cho.  Not because I think they are such a great couple but because I have seldom read a more honest portrayal of first love.  Harry crushes on Cho from afar for three books, cursing Cedric for getting there first.  Then HURRAH Cedric dies and Cho is single.  The course of their relationship is unflinchingly truthful.  Once Harry gets Cho he really isn’t sure what to do with her.  She has her idea of what a Couple should be and Harry, who clearly has not read the Teen Romance Handbook, is delightfully clueless. From their first damp kiss under the mistletoe to their cringe-worthy first date in Madame Puddifoot’s Tea Shop to their break-up that was not so much a break-up as a fade-out.  Totally, hilariously honest.  Ron & Lavender are a close second.

 

4)      Colin & Maggie from The Unicorn Creed by Elizabeth Scarborough

Not strictly speaking a YA novel, but I read it when I was thirteen and again at sixteen and eighteen and twenty-five.  Definitely one of my favourite fantasy novels with one of my favourite couples at the heart of it.  What do I love about Colin & Maggie?  I love that they are friends first.  I love that Colin starts off with traditional ideas of feminine beauty which Maggie challenges.  I love that Maggie wins.  I love their love scene—both of them are ill, unwashed, imprisoned.  What better way to kill time and keep warm in an ice dungeon?

 

5)      Tiffany & Preston from I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Prachett

Tiffany Aching is one of my top five YA heroines.  She is someone who is quite thoroughly ordinary, but shapes her life, her world and herself into something extraordinary.  For three books, readers think Tiffany is destined for the baron’s son Roland—and they make an interesting couple.  But Preston is just perfect: funny, far too clever and brave.  My favourite human traits in one package.  I love that Preston chases Tiffany.  I love that it takes her ages to get it.  I love the last line of the book.

 

tumblr_lpzrq6KGE31qadd37o1_4006)      Eponine, Marius & Cosette from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

Love triangles are a classic trope of YA fiction: Edward-Bella-Jacob; Jace-Clary-Simon; Peeta-Katniss-Gale.  You can keep them because Eponine-Marius-Cosette beats all.  Again, not a YA target novel but I remember Les Miz from stage and page at the age of seventeen.  Eponine: first inhabitant of The Friend Zone.  Oh how I identified with her.  On My Own was my go-to shower song.  Who am I kidding?  It still is.  And, unlike Jacob, Simon or Gale she goes all the way for the one she loves.

7)      Clary & Jace from The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare

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Don’t judge me…ok, go ahead and judge me…but I liked this couple most when I thought they were brother and sister.  It made their romance far more dangerous and naturally far sexier.  Forbidden love doesn’t get much more forbidden.  As a couple, I like the fact that things start off damsel in distress-knight swoops in to save the day but evolve into something far more equitable as their relationship grows.  He saves her, she saves him, he kidnaps her, she plunges an angelic sword through his chest then they save the world together.  Epic stuff.  I also like the way sex is honestly and various presented throughout this series.  Clare shows us sex used for power, for control, for comfort, for fun, even as something holy and redemptive.

 

8)      Michael & Lina from The Twelve Dancing Princess adapted by Andrew Lang.

Sometimes only a bit of storybook romance will do.  I have read various adaptations of this Grimm fairytale but Andrew Lang’s is my favourite—possibly because it was read to me so many times as a child.  I love that Lina and her sisters take joy into their own hands—sneaking off night after night for clandestine dates with handsome, captive princes.  I mean, how sexy is that?  And the classic princess-pauper class divide is here with Michael a mere gardener whose magic flowers win the princess’s heart.  Meanwhile, Lina risks everything because she does not want Michael to become just another love slave of the magic cave.  Beautiful stuff.

 

9)      Eilonwy & Taran from The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

One of my most beloved books from childhood and one which I think has the most to offer young readers.  The quest for identity is central to YA fiction.  Why am I here?  Who am I?  Where do I come from?  How do I live my life?  What am I supposed to do with myself?  When can I start to do that?  These questions live in the hearts of all young people and it is the job of YA authors to help them make sense of the questions and the answers.  Orphaned at birth, as far as he knows, Taran struggles throughout five books to figure out who he is.  At first, he seeks only to learn who his parents are.  When he meets Eilonwy his search becomes far more important as he yearns to discover that he is someone worthy of her.  For her part, Eilonwy could have cut his efforts short sometime in book three but then neither of them would have been able to make the choices they do in the end. Oddly, I remember the fourth book Taran Wanderer being my least favourite as a child.  Re-reading them as an adult, I found it the most profound and interesting of the series.

 

10)  Marco & Celia from The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I’m still in the throes of passion for this book which I read for the first time last month.  Visually stunning, emotionally wrecking and so damn romantic it hurts.  As a couple, Marco and Celia are one of those die for you, kill for you, burn down the world just to roll around in  your ashes kind of forever loves.  Poetry, wine and flowers might be acceptable tokens for some lovers, but these two give each other funky clocks, magical ice gardens and pull down the stars—literally.  Sigh.

 

11)  Jo & Laurie from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I might be alone in this, but does anyone else want to dig up Louisa’s grave, shake her bones a bit and say: SERIOUSLY?  I love this book.  Little Women means a lot to me.  But SERIOUSLY?  Laurie winds up with Amy?  A-MY?  And Jo marries some old German dude?  For REAL, Louisa?  No way.  OK, I agree that Jo should not have taken Laurie’s proposal right away.  She needed to grow up.  He needed to grow up.  But once they both matured they would have been great together.  I don’t buy it.  I don’t like it.  Let’s re-animate Louisa’s corpse with some Voodoo mojo and make her sort it out.  Who’s with me?

 

12)  nou_0711_seph_call_243x317Sephy and Callum from Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

This is another run don’t walk sort of book.  I think it should be required reading for the planet.  Sephy and Callum make my list because their love story is so damn messy.  There is passion, friendship, affection but also ugly prejudice, uncertainty, violence, betrayal, cruelty.  Their defining love scene is not just awkward it is uncomfortable in many ways.  But ultimately it is a love story.  The complexity of it makes it all the more memorable and real.

 

I apologise for the hetero-bias of this list.  I wracked by brain trying to come up with queer couples that have impacted my reading and came up with nothing.  Willow and Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which isn’t a book) or possibly Sam and Frodo from Lord of the Rings but their additions seemed lame and forced.  My mother always says I read the wrong stuff.  Now taking suggestions for Queer Romance books.

 

A Magpie With No Shame: Unpicking Creative Process

thieving-magpieMy Deputy Head Teacher would be dead proud of me for using the term “unpick”.  I think it’s her favourite word.  Ever.  “Let’s unpick this.”  A catch-phrase deserving of a t-shirt.  And as I sit here waiting for my agent to read and respond to the first draft of my second novel, I feel a real urge to unpick.

One of the first questions creative people are asked, when they produce something worth commenting on, is “where/how/why did you come up with that?”  The answer can be complex.  Sometimes I’m not really sure where/how/why I came up with that.  Sometimes I look at the words on the page and genuinely question if they are mine because I really don’t remember writing that bit.  Where/how/why did my creative process spit that up?

I vaguely remember at University reading Charles Bukowski (someone forced me to do it) and I think he likened his writing process to having a really good poo.  Either that, or he said something different and I said: “no it’s like having a really good poo.”  My recollections of the nineties are a bit hazy but I’m pretty sure whatever I said was genius.

One thing I do know about my creative process is that I am a magpie with no shame.  Someone dangles a bright, shiny idea and I grab it.  I often joke with my students, who worry hugely about someone stealing their ideas, that you should definitely steal each other’s ideas.  “Take ‘em,” I say.  “Make ‘em yours.  I myself have not had an original thought since 1985.”  Then I have to explain carefully about plagarism.

Law suits aside, I am a big fan of the magpie creative process.  In fact, I’m going to call it that: The Magpie Creative Process. If I ever get to name my own company or anything, it’s going to be Magpie.  Magpie Records.  Magpie Publishing.  Magpie Pictures.  Magpie Inc.  Or possibly even Magpie Ink.  It could be a publishing company, magazine and tattoo parlour.

So what is The Magpie Creative Process?  Is it safe?  How does it work?  Can I do it?  Can I use the name Magpie Ink?  The answer to all these questions is “Yes.”  Except, of course, for the last one.  Magpie Ink is mine.  Hands off, you thieving bastards.

The first rule of Magpie is definitely talk about Magpie.  I use ideas from the world around me all the time: people’s lives, people’s looks, people’s names.  Most are so heavily masked in make-believe that even the person I magpied (yes, it’s a verb now) would probably not recognise themselves.  But occasionally the resemblances have been so obvious that I felt permission should be granted first.  Truman Becket, a character in Dead Maiden’s Book of Songs, is the name of my friend’s son.  With a name like that how could it not end up in a plot?  I explained to her that I wanted to name my villain after him.  She said: “fine, as long as he doesn’t murder puppies in the book.”  No dead puppies.  Check.

One of my former students appears in both my books (Oliver Ford in A Circle of Lost Sisters and Seb Streeter in Dead Maiden’s Book of Songs) in a slightly diluted form.  He asked to die horribly if I used him.  I’m afraid I have not granted that particular request.  Yet.  (mwahaha)

My insistence on asking permission is less a legal issue than one of courtesy.  In real life Truman Becket is a cherubic five-year-old living in America.  My Becket is a mentally unstable nine-hundred-year-old Yorkshire monk.  Name and eye-colour is all they share.  No chance of libel or lawsuit really.  But she’s a friend.  It’s an unusual name.  Magpie values courtesy.

My next rule of Magpie is start with what’s close.  Or who’s close.  Some writers write what they know, I tend to write what other people know but do it in a way which makes them quite pleased I used their idea rather than really annoyed that I magpied their brain.

For both of my novels, my family started me off.  Lost Sisters was inspired by my daughter Freya’s obsession with wolves.  After I finished Lost Sisters, my husband Paul suggested I leave the werewolves for a while and try a ghost story.  In the manner of one blindly throwing a dart, I asked Freya: “How long has my ghost been dead?”  She replied instantly: “A hundred and thirty years.”  Right, late Victorian.  I can do that.

After rolling ideas around in my head for a few weeks, I shared them with yet more family.  I find it helps to get them drunk first.  My brother-in-law Rob came up with the name Burly-the-Wath because he bicycles past a town called Wath and he thought it was cool because it sounds a bit like Wrath.  (Like I said, get them drunk first.)  My father-in-law Mike deserves credit for creating most of the Truman Becket-Tom Street myth, though he claims he remembers none of it even after I showed him the notes I scribbled while he was talking.  Others I have magpied include my other brother-in-law who runs a forest burial trust, the librarian at my school who shared photographs of the nineteenth century library where she once worked and the dearly departed, never forgotten lady who gave me my first job at a bookstore and wore so many bracelets on her arms it was difficult to hear her if she gestured emphatically while speaking.

Never be afraid to ask questions.  This is a rule for life really, but it’s also at the core of Magpie.  Talk to people.  Tell them about an idea you have and listen to what they say.  Then use it.  Or not.  Magpies can reject that which is shiny if it doesn’t suit the nest.

Magpies are Green.  Not green in colour but Green environmentally.  Magpies Reduce, Reuse and (above all) Recycle.  The idea of a Norn-like magical trio of women connected to a school was one I originally had for Lost Sisters.  In every school three people always seem to know everything that goes on: the secretary, the librarian and the caretaker.  I loved the idea of making these three people the legendary all-seeing sisters.  But it didn’t quite fit the story.  That nest didn’t need them.  Rather than reject the idea, I re-used it for Dead Maiden’s where secretary, librarian and caretaker became Crone, Mother and Maiden of my witch coven.  Magpies know there’s always another nest.

Pride is for eagles, not for Magpies.  I know writers who never show their work to anyone.  Possibly this is out of fear.  I have shown my writing to people hundreds of times and each time felt like part of me was going to die.  I can’t watch but I can’t look away.  It’s a terrifying train wreck.  But I do it because other people make me a better writer.  At first I needed the reassurance that I was not wasting my time.  That I had something to say.  Now I want specifics.  Do you care about the characters?  Does the story make sense?  Are you scared?  Did you cry?  Do you believe that relationship?

The first thing I say to Beta Readers is: “I am not precious about my work and I am not too proud to accept criticism.”  To their credit, my youngest Beta Readers, who are also my students, rise happily to this challenge.  In fact, they’re bloody lucky I have a thick skin and can’t put them in detention on the grounds of harsh feedback.  Irritatingly, they can also be inconsistent.  Too much description.  Not enough description.  Love the action.  Too much action.  Needs a vampire.  Don’t you dare add vampires.

When presented with many sparkly things, clever magpies select only the right ones for the nest they’re building and saves the rest for another day.

Be your own Magpie.  Picking and choosing from my own life is probably my greatest resource as a writer.  This is not news.  Every writer does this.  It’s instinct.  Like swallowing your food after chewing.  Only, after writers chew through the events of our lives, we write it down.  Then we swallow.

When my husband said “ghost story” I remembered something that haunted my childhood.  In a town very near the one I grew up in was a high school surrounded by cornfields.  Across the road from the school was a graveyard.  A graveyard!  As if schools aren’t terrifying enough.  How could anyone concentrate in class when, at any moment, the dead could rise up across the road and invade the cafeteria?

As soon as I knew I wanted to write a ghost story, I thought of that school.  The history of St Beckets sprang up from the idea of a school across from a churchyard.

Patient magpies watch attentively, listen alertly and wait for the right moment to dive.  All artists are professional watchers.  Actors, painters, musicians, dancers, writers—we all watch.  We’re watching you right now.  Everyday.  It’s what we do.  And if we’re not watching we’re listening.  To every word you say.  To the way you say it.  To the look on your face.  We watch.  We Listen.  We take.  And we’re pretty darn shameless about it.

Magpies adapt.  By now you are probably sitting there thinking: “Aw, hell!  You’re not very clever or creative.  You just takes magpieother people’s stuff and makes it you own.  You’re no better than Shakespeare!”  Well, allow me to retort: umm…yeah, kinda.

I freely confess to being a shameless magpie with my creative process.  My mind swoops and soars overhead looking for glittery people, sparkly moments, shining images.  I listen out for golden words and silvery phrases.  I take what I need to build my nest.

But theft is not the magpie’s gift.  It is adaptation.  Magpies don’t dive into Tiffany’s and peck out something precious and valued.  We take things others leave behind.  Beautiful, horrible, painful, delightful, funny things which lie unnoticed or unused or deemed too inappropriate for public consumption.  We shamelessly take them and shape them into a world of our own.  We make magic from left-overs.

Making magic from left-overs.  That should be the catch phrase of Magpie Ink.  Deserves a t-shirt.