The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge – 20th Century Reader

This year I am taking part in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022, hosted here. There are six different levels to aim for, and they are:

  • 20th Century Reader – 2 books
  • Victorian Reader – 5 books
  • Renaissance Reader – 10 books
  • Medieval – 15 books
  • Ancient History – 25 books
  • Prehistoric – 50+ books

Since historical fiction books are often chunky beasts, and since I don’t want to read only historical fiction this year, I’m going to aim for the Renaissance Reader level. I’ve now hit the 20th Century Reader level, and here are the books I read…

The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett

You know how I was saying historical fiction books are chunky? This one is 897 pages. It spans the years 997 to 1006, so it’s all Anglo Saxons, Normans and Vikings. It follows a boatbuilder, a noblewoman and a monk as their lives intertwine, and they contend with a Machiavellian bishop.

There’s a lot to like about this novel. It has a consistently engaging plot, full of twists, turns and intrigue. It doesn’t present a sanitised version of the past (slaves are pimped out, criminals are castrated) and there’s no silly straightwashing either (one of the main characters is gay and there are plenty of other queer characters).

Unfortunately, the depth of world-building and plot leaves the characters looking rather shallow, and I wanted more nuance from them. Also, I’m not entirely sold on Ken Follett’s style – too much exposition made me feel like I was getting a history lesson at times. I enjoyed reading this book, but it didn’t linger in my mind afterwards.

The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian

I can’t write anything sensible about Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series because I love it too much. Instead, here are my five favourite things about this novel (mild SPOILERS):

  1. Jack Aubrey’s hat gets eaten by a wombat in chapter one. Stephen Maturin is more concerned with his wombat’s digestion than Jack’s hat. These books are so f*cking funny and I always forget that until I start reading one.
  2. There are a couple of actual, honest-to-God murders. In a series full of battles and bloodshed, these somehow manage to be shocking.
  3. Jack and Stephen call each other “brother” all the time, which I guess is just the 19th century equivalent of “bro”, but it hits those found-family feels all the same.
  4. Stephen’s relationship with Diana Villiers is … rekindled? No, not exactly. Interesting stuff happens.
  5. The battles. OMG, the battles.

I need three more hist fic books to reach the Victorian Reader level, and any recommendations will be gratefully received. Is anyone else doing the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge?

Goons – Chapter 1

As promised/threatened, here is the first chapter of ‘Goons’. But first, many thanks are due to my beta reader Katherine Highland for helping me improve this story. As well as being an excellent beta reader, she’s also a remarkable writer. So if you fancy reading some #ownvoices fiction that explores autistic experiences of life in the Scottish highlands, you should totally check out her books.

***

329 days until takeover

Bossman is turning 30 soon and he doesn’t like it. I suppose that’s normal. When I tuned 30, I hadn’t done half the things I wanted to do. I’d never been to Asia or tried magic mushrooms or learnt to cook risotto, so that was all pretty disappointing. Bossman’s ambitions have always been loftier than mine though, which is why I think he needs to chill out about achieving them on schedule. He wanted to take over the world by the time he’s 30, and he’s still struggling with taking over Bristol.

The problem is, he’s always comparing himself to other people. Not the people around him – he barely notices them – but the big men of history like Alexander the Great, who apparently ruled a huge empire by the time he turned 25. I once tried giving him a little pep talk, telling him to “Look in the mirror – that’s your competition!” and he threw a book at me. It missed, and broke the mirror behind me, and then he took the cost of a new one out of my salary. It didn’t matter much because my salary is fucking huge and I don’t know what to do with half of it.

The three of us – me, Bossman, and Em – are driving to a pharmaceutical laboratory in Avonmouth to steal some shit. Bossman can easily afford the chemicals and various bits and bobs he needs for his work, but ordering them online means they sometimes take forever to arrive. Bossman is impatient and, as previously mentioned, behind schedule.

I drive the van and Bossman sits on the left. Em sits beside me, her big frame squashed into the middle seat and radiating irritation. It is her six-month anniversary with Gillian and she would rather be eating a fancy, Marks & Spencer dinner, watching one of those historical dramas with a lesbian love story, and having a lot of sex. But Bossman insisted that he needed us both, and that there is no such thing as a six-month anniversary because the prefix “ann-” mean annual, so an anniversary can only apply to a certain number of years, not months.

I get why Em is annoyed. She is still doggedly trying to have a personal life, and maybe I ought to be doing the same. But when I consider the plentiful charms of dinner, a film, and sex with someone I’ve already been shagging for several months, I think I’d actually rather be robbing a pharmaceutical laboratory. Maybe I’ll feel differently when I turn forty.

As we park the van and head towards the lab, I can’t help but worry that we are a conspicuous bunch. Em’s hair – short, slicked-back and bleach-blonde – practically glows in the dark. Bossman is pretty luminous himself, with naturally pale skin made even paler by spending too much time locked up in the lab. The two of them seem to be reflecting every bit of light pollution and starlight available. Me, I’m pretty ordinary looking, apart from being six foot nine. Being six foot nine has its benefits in the daytime, but it makes you a suspicious, threatening figure at night.

We know the location of every camera. Bossman might be impatient, but he knows he’s impatient and so he plans ahead for situations like this. We approach the lab from the back, creeping down a grassy verge with brambles snarling around our ankles. Then we stick close to the side of the building, staying in the camera’s blind spot until I’m close enough to reach up and spray paint over the lens.

We reach the front of the building and Em swiftly picks the lock of the outer door, then we all slip into the foyer. An alarm sounds, loud and shrill, but Bossman dives at the alarm panel and holds up a small, black, keyfob-looking thing. The alarm stops, and I can hear my own heart beating giddily in the quiet it leaves behind.

“One and a half seconds. We’re good,” Bossman mutters, to himself more than me or Em.

I take it this means he stopped the alarm in time and it won’t send out a signal. He pockets the keyfob-looking thing and goes to work on the keypad next to the inner door. This proves more complicated than picking the lock or stopping the alarm, and Bossman has to take it apart and fiddle about with it for four and a half minutes. I want to ask him what he’s doing, but now is obviously a No Questions time.

Finally, the inner door is unlocked and Bossman pushes it open triumphantly. We rush through a darkened office, not bothering to switch the lights on until we reach the laboratory. As the place is illuminated – white walls, blue flooring, chrome everywhere – Bossman smiles his big, rare smile. He looks like a kid in a candy store. Sweet shop. This is how I know we spend too much time together – I am catching his Americanisms.

“Okay, let’s be methodical about this, people,” he says (he often calls me and Em “people”, as if there are ten of us). “Jay, you find the flammables cabinet. Em, go see if that door over there leads to a store room.”

It starts out methodical enough. I find the flammables cabinet. Em finds the stores. Between the three of us, we find every item on Bossman’s list and a handy trolley for stealing it all. But then Bossman gets distracted by a cold storage room full of things he likes, such as cell culture media and horse blood agar plates. While he is figuring out how to transport these at a suitable temperature, me and Em take the opportunity to do some shopping of our own.

“Are these really made of platinum?” Em says, scrutinising an unremarkable looking cup.

“Well the label says they are, so they must be. I think they’re for melting stuff in, like over a Bunsen burner.”

“I’m taking one for Gillian. I’ll melt it down and make something pretty for her, and then I reckon I’ve got at least another month before she notices I’m never around and chucks me.”

Part of me wants to reassure her that she’s a catch, and Gillian ought to appreciate her even if she’s not available 24/7. Part of me wants to tell her that if something is used for melting stuff in, it won’t be easy to melt down. The two parts cancel each other out and I say nothing.

Soon, we leave the lab with our ill-gotten goodies. Bottles and tubs of chemicals, polystyrene boxes lined with ice packs to keep the temperature-sensitive stuff cold, and a couple of boxes of pipettes because you can never have too many. We load it all discreetly into the van and drive home. To Bossman’s home, that is.

***

Thanks for reading! Chapter 2 coming soon, i.e. tomorrow.

2021 Wrap-up

Hi friends, welcome to 2022! I hope your hangovers aren’t too bad and your new year’s resolutions aren’t broken yet.

To be honest, 2021 was a more challenging year for me than 2020. During 2020 I was mostly a smug introvert, making the most of lockdown by reading a lot, learning coin tricks and getting worryingly obsessed with MMA. But 2021 has been a rollercoaster, with some high points (publications, a new baby niece) and some low points (a break-up, a bereavement).

Here’s a sum-up of my 2021 writing and reading adventures:

Publishing

After publishing absolutely nothing last year, I managed to publish two books this year! The first was my debut novel, Other People’s Butterflies, published by Art Over Chaos. It’s a YA contemporary about identity, friendship, and trying to understand the world around you. Also 1940s spy shenanigans.

I got my first reviews, my first royalties, signed a few copies (one of them was actually for a fan rather than a family member!) and generally felt very much like a Proper Writer. I hope people continue to read it through 2022 but in order for that to happen I’ll have to get my arse in gear and actually do some marketing.

My second publication was a poetry chapbook called Monster Hunting for Girls Ages 8-14, published by Dancing Girl Press. It’s about the monsters that plague us during childhood and early adolescence, and the slow process of befriending them, defeating them, or learning to live with them.

Writing

Fiction-wise, I recently finished a 16,000 word sci-fi story called Goons. It’s weird, character-based, and contains the most dysfunctional found family I could dream up. It turns out that 16,000 word sci-fi stories are difficult to find a home for, so I’m thinking of publishing this on my blog.

Poetry-wise, I finished another chapbook called 16 Flavours of Ghost. It’s a bunch of character poems, each one from the perspective of a ghost. They’re a spirited bunch, with a lot to say about life despite being dead. I’m hoping to get some interest from chapbook publishers and I’m waiting to hear back from two of them, so wish me luck!

Reading

I read 21 books in 2021, which is pretty poor by my standards. I’ll aim for at least 24 this year, since 2 per month is usually do-able for me. I’ll also aim to keep reading plenty of fabulous indie and self-published books. As for 2021, my Book of the Year Award* goes to…

HMS Expedient by Peter Smalley. I couldn’t quite believe I was reading a nautical adventure and not wishing it was a Patrick O’Brian. I will definitely be following the careers of Captain Rennie and Lieutenant Hayter in future.

Thanks for reading my lovelies. Roll on 2022!

*Not an actual award. Book chosen was not published in 2021. Purely a reflection of what Cora likes best rather than objective quality.

Hyping Every Indie Book I’ve Read This Year

This year I’ve made an effort to read more indie-published and self-published books, and there have been some absolute gems. If you’re book shopping for Christmas, do consider adding one (or more) of these to your basket.

This entire list is very queer, particularly in terms of asexual and aromantic representation, but also other LGBT+ identities. If that’s your cup of tea, read on!

Common Bonds by Various authors

I’m being cheeky by including this, as one of the stories in this anthology (Spacegirl and the Martian) is mine. This Kickstarter-funded anthology is full of SFF stories focusing on aromantic protagonists and platonic relationships.

There are honestly some real treasures in here, with my personal favourite being Cinder – a witty, empowering fairytale re-telling that captures the joy and excitement of new friendship. There’s also an astronaut bonding with her dad in space, and two werewolf stories because aro people evidently love werewolves!

Create My Own Perfection by E.H. Timms

This short story is a re-telling of the Medusa myth, set at a university full of mythological beings. It uses the ancient tale to explore the ever-current issue of sexual harassment, and also shows the sharper edges of female friendship. Emma isn’t just kind and supportive to her friends – she’s also willing to do whatever it takes to defend them.

The Murder Next Door by Sarah Bell

Want to read about a sapphic couple solving a murder mystery in 1912? Of course you do! Sarah Bell’s debut is full of rich historical detail, and the central pairing of Ada and Louisa are brought vividly to life.

Despite the period setting, don’t expect a traditional “whodunnit”. The emphasis is less on who did the deed, and more on the meaty, nuanced issue of whether or not they deserve to be punished for it.

The Mesmerist’s Daughter by Heidi James

Good lord, the writing in this one is extraordinary! An unreliable, but highly observant narrator tells the story of a child whose mother is a wolf. Not literally. But maybe literally? Full of magic, but the kind of magic you get in horror movies rather than fairytales.

Streetlamps and Shepherd Moons by Katherine Highland

Streetlamps and Shepherd Moons is a slice-of-life novel that focuses on Diane – an autistic woman – and her attempts to navigate a confusing and sometimes hostile world. It’s an authentic, unfiltered take on autistic life that’s both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

This certainly isn’t a comfort read. Diane has an awful lot to deal with (often neurotypicals being clueless) but her difficulties and dramas are counterbalanced by the warmth of everyday comforts and human connection. The book is ultimately a celebration of creating the life you want and finding the people who matter.

The Dragon of Ynys by Minerva Cerridwen

Now this one is a comfort read. It’s a short and sweet story of a knight, a dragon, and a baker’s wife teaming up to search for the missing baker, and finding adventure and friendship along the way. It’s like those books about dragons you used to read as a kid, but with added LGBTQIA rep!

Any of these sparking your interest? And have you read any awesome indie books this year? Feel free to rave about them in the comments!

Gwen vs Goblin Girl – Part 2

I strain my ears, trying to hear whatever it is that Vrenega can hear. At first, I can’t detect anything but the rustling of leaves in the trees. But then there’s a sudden shout, and two warriors are charging towards us – a big dude and an equally big girl, with broad blue stripes across their faces and broadswords held aloft. I panic, leap off the bench and throw my “Uzi” at them. It sails harmlessly between them.

Luckily, Vrenega is less useless. She swings her battle axe like a pro, fighting the female warrior while I stand there and dither. The male warrior approaches me with a friendly grin on his blue-painted face. He points his sword at me and, very gently, boops me in the belly with it.

“Am I dead?” I ask, aghast.

Presumably he takes pity on me, because he says “Nah, just injured. That means you’re out for fifteen minutes.”

“Oh. OK.”

I glance over at Vrenega and the other warrior, who have stopped fighting and are now doing rock-paper-scissors to decide who won. Apparently Vrenega won (scissors beats paper) and the warriors retreat. Vrenega turns back to me, all covered in glory, and I do my best to look defiant.

“I’m injured,” I say. “I can’t play for fifteen minutes, so I guess you just carry on without me, right?”

Vrenega purses her lips, looking like she’s weighing up the pros and cons of ditching me. Wanting to know exactly how shitty Ethan’s new girlfriend is, I decide to make things easy for her.

“I know the way back, so don’t feel like you have to stick around. And I found your fucking spell scroll too.” I take it out of my bag and literally throw it at her. “Go enchant the dragon, get the jewel, find Ethan and have a laugh at how rubbish I am at LARPing. Seriously, have fun.”

Weirdly, I do feel like I’ve been injured. I think of Ethan and Vrenega, cozied up together and laughing at me, and there’s an actual pain in my chest. 

She doesn’t leave. Instead, she rummages in her pack and pulls out a roll of bandages.

“Where are you wounded?” she asks, brisk as a boarding school matron.

“In the gut.”

“OK. I’m guessing you don’t want to mess your dress up, so we’ll say it’s your arm instead. Roll your sleeve up.”

I’m reluctant to do as she says because I have firmly decided that I hate her. I’d also quite like to be alone so I can have a quick cry. But she’s not going anywhere, so I figure I may as well play along and just wait for this to be over. I sit down on the nearest bench and bunch up the floaty material of my left sleeve.

It turns out that Vrenega is some kind of healer. She doesn’t just bandage the imaginary wound – she cleans it with a soft cloth and something from a black bottle, which I strongly suspect is water. Then she takes cotton wool from a paper bag labelled “moon moss” and places a wad of it in the crook of my elbow (“to soak up the blood” she says), before bandaging it in place. The whole time, she has a look of intense concentration on her face, like I might actually bleed out if she doesn’t do this properly. By the time she’s almost finished with the bandages, I’m starting to suspect that something’s up. She keeps sniffing, and her eyes have gone all glossy. I could ignore it, I guess, but I’m bad at ignoring things.

“What’s the matter with you? I’m the one who’s injured here.”

“When you said Ethan likes any girl who’s nice to him, did you mean it?”

“Yeah. So what? That’s just the way he is.”

I watch, mildly horrified, as a tear spills from Vrenega’s eye and rolls down her cheek, leaving a trail in her green face paint.

“Fan-bloody-tastic,” she says. “The only guy I’ve ever been with, the only guy I’ve ever wanted to be with, and to him I’m just … I could’ve been anyone! Anyone who smiled and said hi.”

The only guy she ever wanted to be with … huh. I get the sense of something clicking into place.

“It was you, wasn’t it? Your friend who thought she was asexual but then met the right guy and realised she wasn’t.”

Vrenega nods. Despite the crying, she’s still tending my imaginary wound – fastening the bandage in place with a safety pin. I’m a little concerned she’s going to get distracted and stick me with it.

“I’m sorry I said all that stuff. I know ace people and aro people exist. And for all I know, you’re one of them-”

“I am.”

“And I’m being a total cliché, telling you it’s a phase. And being a scary, jealous girlfriend as well.”

“You are scary. Especially with the axe.”

“Ugh. I swear, I’m not usually like this with boys. I knew Ethan for like a year before I even thought about him that way.”

Hm. Something else clicks into place.

“You know, if you don’t get sexually attracted to people without, like, an emotional connection … err, some people call that demisexual.”

“Yeah, I heard of that. But people on the internet say it’s just a bunch of straight girls trying to be special snowflakes.”

“People on the internet also say Bill Gates puts microchips in Covid vaccines.” This startles a watery laugh out of her. “I mean, obviously you don’t have to use the label if you don’t want to, but why would you care what some judgemental randoms think of it? You’re a fucking goblin warrior queen.”

“Some warrior queen. Sat here boo-hooing over … I don’t even know what.”

She swipes a tear off her cheek and pulls a compact mirror out of her pack to check her make-up.

“We can talk about this stuff, if you want,” I offer. I may be still a teenager and pretty clueless and surely not her favourite person, but who else has she got? A boyfriend who’s built differently, and an internet full of trolls.

“Yeah, that’d be cool.” She stands up and swings her axe over her shoulder. “Not right now though. We’ve got a dragon to deal with.”

***

The dragon is a twelve-year-old boy. He is dressed all in green, with a pretty impressive tail and wings, but he is still a twelve-year-old boy. He sits at the base of an oak tree, with treasure spread out in front of him. Most of the treasure looks like scrunched up tin foil, but somewhere in that shiny hoard is the sacred jewel of Snakeshire.

“Where are his parents?” I whisper to Vrenega, as we hide behind a thick tree trunk.

“Slaughtered,” Vrenega whispers back. “He’s the last dragon left, or so the legend says.”

I’m starting to like how seriously she takes this. Ethan says it’s one of the things he loves about her – that she throws her whole heart into everything she does. I hope he tells her stuff like that. He might have started liking her because she was girl-shaped and nice to him, but if he loves her (and I’m pretty sure he does) it’s because of everything she is.

“Do you have the spell scroll?”

Vrenega pulls it out of her pack and hands it to me. “Here, you can do it.”

“You sure? What if I mess it up?”

“You won’t.”

The steel in her voice cuts off any argument I might have made. At the same moment, we both step out from behind the tree and stride towards the dragon. I hastily unfurl the scroll and read aloud,

“Dragon leave your treasure

To the waking world

And fall into a slumber

With your great wings furled”

Lowering the scroll, I see the kid on his feet, claws raised. But then he yawns hugely, sinks down to the forest floor, and curls up like a big green cat. I put a hand to my heart and gesture frantically at Vrenega, wanting her to appreciate how adorable this dragon is. But she’s all business, already on her knees and sifting through the huge puddle of treasure. I join her.

There’s plenty of other stuff amongst the tin foil. Big, plastic jewels the size of my palm. A cardboard crown. But no sign of the sacred jewel of Snakeshire, which – according to legend – looks like a small, purple egg.

The dragon stirs. Shit, I didn’t know sleeping spells wore off so quickly. I dig frantically through the treasure, scattering tin foil everywhere. But it’s no good. The dragon rises with a roar. And though the dragon’s voice hasn’t broken yet and it’s quite a high-pitched roar, it’s still clear that Vrenega and I are in serious trouble.

“Err … Dragonleaveyourtreasure” I begin, but Vrenega cuts me off.

“I’ve got the jewel! Run!”

I scramble to my feet, turn and run, with Vrenega beside me and the dragon behind me, roaring for all he’s worth.

“We’re close to camp,” Vrenega pants. “Don’t stop running!”

I don’t. I didn’t come this far to be eaten by such a tiny dragon. I can’t even slow down, because he’s right behind us the whole time. Why doesn’t his tail slow him down?

The footpath veers off to the left and suddenly our team’s camp (a small, blue gazebo) is in view. Our bard is standing beside it, having a vape. Under the gazebo, Ethan – aka Alazar Birch – is sitting, looking sorry for himself. His head is bandaged, and the bandages are generously decorated with fake blood. Good to know I’m not the only one who got injured.    

Behind us, the dragon gives another roar. He’s getting hoarse now, and sounds a tiny bit scary. I shriek, because he’s earned it, and grab Vrenega by the arm. We hurtle towards camp and basically crash into Alazar, knocking him onto his back and falling together in a tangle. The dragon finally stops roaring.

The three of us disentangle ourselves. “We’ve returned, my love,” says Vrenega, when there’s enough breath in her lungs for speaking.

“I noticed,” says Alazar, with a grin. “And you brought me a pet dragon too. How thoughtful.”

“But where’s the jewel?” I say, noticing that Vrenega is only holding the cardboard crown.

Her little bud of a mouth blooms into a wide smile as she plucks a small, purple, egg-shaped jewel from the crown. With one hand, she tosses the jewel to Alazar. With the other, she puts the crown on my head. Damn, she’s actually kind of cool.

The bard congratulates us but gets distracted by the dragon, who is demanding a snack. I think the dragon is the bard’s son.

Maybe a victorious quest resets things, or maybe it’s the sight of a dragon eating a cereal bar that does it. But our other identities seem to fall away for a moment, and we are Gwen and Ethan and Fliss. It’s something new, but screw it – I can handle new. So can Ethan. So can Fliss.

***

Thanks for reading my lovelies! I hope you enjoyed catching up with Gwen and her (mis)adventures. Happy Ace Week and Happy Halloween for tomorrow!

Gwen vs Goblin Girl – Part 1

Me: “I should write some bonus content for Other People’s Butterflies.”

Also me: “But I’m an obscure indie author. I’d just be writing self-indulgent fanfiction of my own book.”

Also me: “I’m gonna write self-indulgent fanfiction of my own book!”

If you haven’t read Other People’s Butterflies but still fancy reading this short story, here’s what you need to know:

  • Gwen and Ethan are best friends, but things haven’t always been simple.
  • Ethan is an experienced LARPer (Live Action RolePlayer). Gwen isn’t.
  • The story focuses on Gwen’s first meeting with a romantic interest of Ethan’s, briefly introduced in Other People’s Butterflies.

Ace Week (24th – 30th October) seems like the right time to post this, so here is part one and I’ll be posting part two on the 30th. A quick content note – this story contains a negative reaction to someone coming out, so take care if that’s something you’re sensitive about.

***

Everything itches. I am wearing a dark blue dress that goes right down to my ankles, with floaty, hippy-ish sleeves. I have pointy ears to show that I am an elf, not a hippy, and my newly purple hair is full of fiddly little braids. At least I’m not wearing a corset like Goblin Girl.

I should stop thinking of her as Goblin Girl. Ethan’s girlfriend goes by the name Fliss in real life and Vrenega the Bloodthirsty at LARP events. She is short and plump and round-faced, and her face is currently painted emerald green. She has a little red rosebud of a mouth in amongst the greenery, and long, dark-brown hair.

The Game Master – a grey-bearded, sixty-ish guy who is wearing black jeans and a plain tee-shirt, yet somehow managing to look more like a wizard than any of the dudes in robes – asks everyone if they have their weapons ready. A variety of foam weapons are held aloft in response, and I look around at the array of swords, axes, spears and daggers in dismay.

Shit on a stick. I remembered to bring water, snacks, pencils, a notebook, a miniature first aid kit and a bottle of fake blood. I forgot to bring a weapon. Ethan – currently going by the name Alazar Birch and looking like a cross between a 70s glam rock star and a tree – spots my predicament quickly. He asks if anyone has a spare weapon, but nothing turns up. I can feel my cheeks starting to burn as everyone starts rummaging through their faux-leather packs, trying to find something for the weaponless noob.

“It’s okay,” I say breezily, bending down and picking a twig off the forest floor. “I’ll have a wand.”  

“No wands,” says Vrenega the Bloodthirsty, in a surprisingly stern voice. “You can only use magic with spell scrolls.”

“Fine then, it’s not a wand,” I say, and there’s something in the way she’s looking at me that makes me want to piss her off. “It’s an Uzi.”

“No machine guns either,” says Vrenega.

Before I can point out that an Uzi is a submachine gun, the Game Master says “Not to worry, you two can figure it out on your mission,” and hands me a small piece of paper with instructions scribbled on it. I look up at Vrenega, and there is undisguised disappointment on her face. I guess she’d rather be paired up with Ethan for two-person missions. So would I.

Vrenega and I shoulder our packs and say our goodbyes to the rest of our team, which is made up of us, Ethan/Alazar Birch, a wizard with hipster glasses, a six-foot-four warrior who does look pretty badass apart from the cat ears, and a guy who calls himself a bard but doesn’t look anything like Shakespeare. He has a twirly moustache and is wearing a lot of purple and orange.

Watching Alazar and Vrenega say goodbye is weird, because it’s all in-character and intense. Vrenega reaches up to put a green hand on Alazar’s face and says “Be strong, my beloved.” Then she gives him a big, juicy kiss that leaves traces of her red lipstick on his mouth. I don’t know how I’m supposed to follow that, so I just wave at him and say “Bye, mate.” He waves back, grinning sheepishly. “Farewell, friend.”

We set off towards the campfire circle, which is in the centre of the forest and is apparently the best place to find spell scrolls. We have to find one to use against a dragon, which sounds like a fun mission, but Vrenega is sour-faced the whole time. Every time I try to talk to her, she gives a little scrap of an answer that makes proper conversation impossible. I ask how she got into LARPing and she says “I just fell into it, I guess.” I ask how her first year of uni is going and she says “It’s OK.” When we get to the campfire circle, and Vrenega starts checking the benches for hidden spell scrolls, I make one last attempt.

“Hey, Ethan was telling me about this movie-”

“Keep your voice down!” she hisses. “D’you want the whole forest to know we’re here and looking for scrolls?”

She bends down to look underneath a bench and I have a sudden urge to quite literally kick her arse. Instead, I say “Are all Goblins like you?”

“Like what?” she snaps, straightening up hastily.

“Like … rude. I can’t figure out if you’re in character as some battle-hardened warrior woman, or if you don’t like me for some reason. Or maybe you’re just jealous of my Uzi.” I wave my stick, wanting some kind of reaction from her. Anger, laughter, anything. A flicker of grim humour crosses her face.

“I’m not jealous of your stick, Gwendolyn. Though you ought to know a machine gun’s not a genre-appropriate weapon. People do this to escape from everyday life, and every anachronism makes the world a little bit less real.”

“An Uzi’s a submachine gun,” I mumble, chastened.

Vrenega sits on one of the benches and slings her pack onto her lap. She fishes around in it, brings out a water bottle and takes a drink. Then, without looking at me, she says “I don’t have a problem with you. I just don’t see why you have to be here.”

“Excuse me?”

“Me and Ethan see each other like once a month. You two live in the same village, you can see him any time you want.”

Oh wow. I think I’m about to have a fight over a boy. How ridiculous.

“This was his idea, you know. He invited me.”

Vrenega scoffs, and finally turns to face me. “I’m not clueless, okay? I know you’re like, the girl next door and the one who got away and all that shit. And as soon as me and him have any problems he’s going to go running back to you.”

Now it’s my turn to scoff. “You’ve been reading too many romance novels.”

“I don’t even read romance, I read fantasy.”

“Bet you write shippy fanfiction where all the elves hook up with each other.”

I’m cheating now, because I know for a fact she writes shippy fanfiction where all the elves hook up with each other. I know this because Ethan told me. He literally never shuts up about her.

“Whatever. Act as innocent as you want but I know how the world works.”

Sitting down on the bench (a good distance away from Vrenega), I steel myself. I’ve come out to people before, but never in such a hostile situation.

“Okay, not that it’s any of your business but me and Ethan are never gonna get together because I’m aro-ace. That’s short for aromantic-asexual, which means-”

“I know what it means,” she spits. “It means you’re seventeen and you’re nervous about sex and you’re not ready for a relationship. Give it a year and you’ll have hair-coloured hair again” she gestures towards my purple hair “and you’ll be as straight as anyone else.”

I’m gobsmacked. Literally, I feel like she just smacked me in the gob. I was all set to give her a fucking PowerPoint presentation about being aromantic and asexual because no-one seems to know what that is. It turns out she does know about it, she just doesn’t believe it exists. She doesn’t believe I exist.

“I’m eighteen, not seventeen,” I say, trying to keep my voice steady. “And you don’t know anything.”

“Don’t I? I had a friend who thought she was asexual, but then she met the right guy and to cut a long story short, she isn’t!”

“Well, I used to think I was straight but it turns out I’m not. So I guess straight people don’t exist according to your logic. And you’re talking absolute bollocks about me and Ethan. We’re like family.”

“Sure, sure. So you didn’t go out with him?”

“It was one date! I was confused because I didn’t know people like me were allowed to exist. And Ethan just fancies any girl who’s nice to him. I’m not special and neither are you.”

I might have gone too far with that last bit. But seriously, who does this bitch think she is? She stands up, and I think she’s about to storm off in a huff. But instead she stands very still, scanning the trees beyond the campfire circle. I’m breathing heavily, and I grip the front of the bench, trying to calm down. My fingertips brush against paper.

A spell scroll, sellotaped to the underside of the bench. I stuff it into my bag as Vrenega takes a few steps forward, holding her battle axe aloft.

“Get up,” she barks. “We’ve got company.”

***

Oh dear, things are not going well! Gwen vs Goblin Girl will continue on the 30th.

A Taster of “Other People’s Butterflies”

I decided to post a taster of my novel Other People’s Butterflies today. It’s a YA contemporary with an aromantic-asexual protagonist, and the plot is a little bit Harriet the Spy and a little bit Gossip Girl. If you like this snippet, the whole book is available here in paperback and eBook form.

In this chapter, Gwen (the protagonist) is hanging out with her childhood friend Ethan, who wants to be “more than friends”. Which is kind of a stressful situation when you’re an aro-ace teenager who doesn’t know she’s aro-ace yet…

***

With Mum and Dad gone, me and Ethan settle down on the sofa to watch the second Captain America movie. We sit close together, but not touching, and pass the bag of Doritos back and forth, getting orange dust all over our fingers. I wonder, for the third or fourth time, why I don’t feel the slightest fluttering of desire for Chris Evans. The guy is all muscles and eyelashes, which must be a killer combination because Martine and Angie both fancy the pants off him and they usually have different types.

“If you could have any superpower, what would you pick?” says Ethan.

I chew this over. A few weeks ago, I would have picked invisibility in a heartbeat – all the better for spying. Now, I think I’d still choose it, but for slightly different reasons. It’d be good for avoiding trouble.

“I’d probably pick invisibility.”

“And sneak into the boys’ changing rooms?”

“Why would I waste a superpower on that? It’s not exactly difficult to see naked people, they’re all over the internet.”

“Yes, I’m aware.” Ethan’s voice is dry and a corner of his mouth quirks into a knowing smile. Time to get the subject back on track.

“So, what would you pick?” I ask.

“Shape-shifting.”

“Really? I thought you’d pick flying.”

“I could shape-shift into a bird.”

“What about invisibility?”

“I could shape-shift into a table and no-one would know I was there.”

“Super-strength?”

“Boring.”

“Mind control?”

“Only manipulators pick mind control.”

I’m giggling now, feeling more relaxed than I have in ages. I love the way his brain works, and I think about telling him this but decide not to, in case it sounds creepy. Too intimate, complimenting someone on their thought processes. Safer to stick with external stuff like clothes and hair.

To compensate for not being able to say the stupid shit I want to say, I cuddle up to him and rest my head on his shoulder. He’s warm, and surprisingly comfortable, and all the drama of the past few weeks fades away into insignificance. All is right with the world, until-

“Gwen, you’re kind of giving me some mixed signals here.”

“Hm?” He turns his head to look down at me but I can’t see him properly; our faces are too close together. I pull away from him. “What do you mean?”

“The last conversation we had, you basically said that you didn’t want to go out. Then you invite me over to watch a film and you’re kind of … coming on to me.”

“What the hell? How am I coming on to you?” My voices rises in irritation, but then I remember Mum and Dad upstairs and hush myself up quickly.

“By being all cuddly!”

“I haven’t done anything to you that I wouldn’t do to a female friend or my bloody parents!”

“You know it’s different when you’re with a bloke. I just wish you’d be more clear with me, like, can’t you just tell me what you want?”

Well, fuck. What do I want, exactly? “Why don’t you just tell me what you want?”

A pause. Ethan doesn’t answer the big questions flippantly, but neither does he leave them unanswered. “I want more.”

“Like, more of this? To spend more time with me? Watch more movies together and have more conversations that seem really childish but are actually kind of thought-provoking?”

“Well, yes, all of that.”

“I want that too.” My eyes are stinging, because I wish more than anything that we could leave the conversation there. “But I don’t think you really want more. I think you want different.”

Ethan says nothing for a long moment. I turn back to the TV, where there is a big fight scene going on. Slick and choreographed and brutal. My stomach aches.

“When you said the friend zone is the only zone you have,” says Ethan, “was that just an excuse so I wouldn’t feel bad, or did you mean it?”

“I meant it.”

“I don’t get it. Do your parents not want you having boyfriends yet?”

“No, that’s not it.”

“Do you maybe … do you maybe like girls? Because you know that’s totally okay, right, you know I’d understand.”

“No, I don’t like girls. And you know what, I’m starting to not like you either. Why can’t you just leave it alone?”

Oh crap. Puffer-fish mode. I’ve gone all spiky so he can’t get to me.

“Maybe I should go.”

“Yeah, maybe you should.”

“Fine, then.”

He stands up slowly, then walks towards the door of the living room slowly, like he’s expecting me to stop him. I could stop him, but what then? He wants one of two things from me:

1) A girlfriend-boyfriend relationship, or

2) An explanation as to why he can’t have that.

I can’t give him either of those things, so I say nothing and let him leave.

Top Ten Tuesday – Secondary/Minor Characters Who Deserve More Love

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future weeks’ topics can be found here. This week’s topic is…

Secondary/Minor Characters Who Deserve More Love

Yaaaasss! Minor characters are so often the best thing about a story. The protagonist has to drive the plot, but secondary characters generally have less to do and more space to just be awesome. Here are some of my personal favourites.

Hassan Harbish from An Abundance of Katherines

Witty, insightful, and loyal, Hassan is easier to like than the book’s slightly whiny protagonist. Also he manages to turn a bit of homophobic graffiti into “God hates baguettes”. John Green was fond of the character and considered giving him his own spin-off novel, which I’m still eagerly awaiting.

Reepicheep from The Chronicles of Narnia


Everyone loves a tiny badass, and Reepicheep is the tiniest and most badass of them all. Disrespect him and he will spank you with a sword.

Laura Moon from American Gods

I could have picked any of the secondary characters from American Gods, but I’m going with the dead wife. She’s a f*ck-you to the “women in refrigerators” trope, where a female character dies a grisly death to motivate the male protagonist and send him on his journey. Laura, bless her rotten little zombie heart, just won’t stay dead.

Hickory Sparkle from Mercedes Ice

This is one of those childhood books that’s burnt into my brain – there’s nothing else like it. Hickory could be dismissed as a girl with a silly name and a crush on Mercedes, but don’t be fooled.

Philippa “Phil” Gordon from Anne of the Island

What I love about Anne’s friend Phil is that she’s very casually a genius. Usually, clever girls are presented as uptight overachievers, constantly striving for straight A’s. Phil has “heaps of brains” but just isn’t that bothered with school.

Alicia Abshire from The Time Traveller’s Wife

Alicia only has a small role in this novel, but I love her for her sense of mischief and her plans for retirement (which involve listening to Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, eating chocolate and shooting heroin!)

The Them from Good Omens

I’m cheating slightly, but these four come as a team. Since they’re competing for attention with the dynamic duo of Aziraphale and Crowley, The Them are often overlooked in Good Omens. But they’re beautifully drawn characters who enjoy an idyllic, outdoorsy childhood before literally stopping an apocalypse.

John Childermass from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Aside from having a fabulous name, Childermass is the ultimate puppet master. He might be a servant, but he’s always the one in control.

Brune from Bloody Rose

Bloody Rose is full of great characters, but Brune has my heart. He’s a shaman with a daft sense of humour and some serious identity issues. More importantly, he’s a ride-or-die friend.

Mary Malone from the His Dark Materials trilogy

In so many children’s books, the adult characters are bland or two-dimensional. But in the HDM trilogy they’re allowed to be complex and interesting without stealing focus from the young protagonists. Mary Malone is just one of my faves. She a nun-turned-physicist, memorably described in the TV series as “Impertinent. Intelligent. Free.”

Thanks for reading! Who are some of your favourite secondary/minor characters?

A Couple of Poems

These are both pretty old but I still like them!

A Catalogue of Errors

I wake up in the morgue again.

The clean chill of the place

has knocked the summer right out of me

and I slip away shaking,

gut aching, re-tracing my steps.

I’m a bad drinker.

The stuff slows my brain

but quickens my bones, I wake

a hundred muddy miles from home

on a good morning.

I’m a bad scientist.

Treat my chemicals like paints,

my subjects like a tyrant.

I forget to feed my cell cultures.

I blow my nose in the cleanrooms.

I’m a bad mother.

Granted, there’s no other kind

these days, but it’s hard to explain

how I’ve forgotten every baby I had.

I get lost, I think, in my own work,

my own waste of time,

the way my brain likes to eat itself.

I’ve eaten so many mistakes.

Blue powders, the wrong organs of fish,

Snow White red apples

and berries that leave me for dead.

The needing to know

never stops.

Still,

the September dawn oozes

its light over everyone.

Bad drinkers.

Bad scientists.

Bad mothers.

Good morning.

Three at Midnight

It’s midnight, and I’m out looking for people to save. Some loose-limbed youngblood, drowsy with the promise of sleep. Poor girl danced herself dizzy and walks home alone. That brief, in-between age when she doesn’t belong to anyone. The night is as full of monsters as it ever was, but I stretch and stamp and ready my weapons. She doesn’t have to find out.

It’s midnight, and I’m out looking for victims. A hard heartbeat, truthful under the false promise of red lipstick. She knows her flesh is marshmallow-soft. She dyes her hair to disguise the colour of rabbits, sparrows, small things that get swooped on and scooped up and eaten. I bare my teeth. It’s a cold night, and her skin will be like ice-cream.

It’s midnight, and I’m out looking for trouble. I walk with a teasing stumble, every few steps. I sing softly, faking courage, faking a need for it. My blood bubbles with delight. I am a plain, restless, unimportant thing. But tonight I will make gods fight over my fate.

I hope you enjoyed these. If you did, you might be interested in The Problem with Magic Shows.

“Anne of Green Gables” and the Joys of Re-reading

A quick SPOILER warning – This post contains some spoilers for the Anne of Green Gables series, published by L.M. Montgomery in the early 20th century.

I never used to re-read much. There are (roughly) a bazillion books in the world, and if I’m going to get through as many of them as possible, I shouldn’t waste too much time going back to the ones I’ve already read, right? I always thought of re-reading as the lazy option -something you do when you can’t be arsed to find anything else to read.

But I’ve recently changed my attitude, thanks to a boxset of the Anne of Green Gables series that my parents bought me last Christmas. I’ve been working my way steadily through these books that I’ve already read, and have come to understand the joys of re-reading.

You’ll never read the same book twice

As Pocahontas1 said, you can’t step in the same river twice. The same could be said about books. A book is a static object, but the world changes around it, making it seem different. The subject of a novel can become less relevant or more relevant, and characters can become less or more relatable, depending on the current issues and trends of modern life.

A reader also changes throughout her life, which means that the same book could seem completely different at ages 10, 30, 50 and 70. This has definitely been the case with the Anne of Green Gables series, which I first read during primary school.

I adored the first book in the series, but got a little bored with the others. Maybe the quality of the writing declined? Nope. It turns out the later books are excellent, and I just couldn’t relate to “grown-up” Anne, who did mysterious things like getting a job and going to college.  

Now that I’ve had these experiences myself, I find the books much more engaging. Though there’s always the risk I’ll lose interest again when she gets married and has babies!

Catch things you missed the first time around (Spoilers!)

Re-reading this series has been a nostalgic experience. There’s so much I remember from when I was a kid, like the gorgeous, giddy descriptions of the Canadian countryside, and Anne’s (mostly endearing) habit of being a drama queen. But there’s also a lot I missed when I read it as a child.

For example, I didn’t realise how much the author celebrates unconventional families. Anne is an orphan. She’s raised by Thomas and Marilla Cuthbert, who aren’t a married couple but a brother and sister who run a farm together. Thomas dies when Anne is a teen, but she and Marilla aren’t on their own for long, as Marilla adopts a pair of six-year-old twins.

Then Rachel Lynde, a recently widowed neighbour, moves in with them and Anne suddenly has two mums! There’s never an implication that Anne ought to be raised in a more traditional family, and when she describes her home to a new college friend, she makes it heart-meltingly clear that she is happy and loved.

There are also smaller details I’d forgotten, like the death of Anne’s friend Ruby from “consumption”, and a shocking burst of dark humour when Anne and her housemates have to get rid of a cat (don’t worry, the cat evades their murderous intentions and becomes part of the household).

The comfort factor

Comfort reading is all the rage these days, which is hardly surprising. While I think it’s important to value books that challenge and unsettle us as much as those that comfort and charm us, literary comfort food is an important part of a balanced reading diet.

Sometimes you just want to pick up a book and know you’re about to spend some time with characters you like, who aren’t going to die unexpectedly, and will be safe and happy at the end of the story. I don’t think any author owes readers a nice and comfortable time, so the only way to guarantee it is to go with something you’ve already read.

So, what do you think of re-reading? Are there any books you can read over and over without getting bored? And are there any fellow Anne fans around?

1 Apparently it was some dude called Heraclitus who said this, but I’m a 90s child, so I heard it first from Pocahontas.