We’re getting closer and closer to the release date of Gifted Thief! To win a paperback AND some special swag, then check out Goodreads for this great giveaway starting today
We’re getting closer and closer to the release date of Gifted Thief! To win a paperback AND some special swag, then check out Goodreads for this great giveaway starting today
My mum died unexpectedly when I was a kid and, with my dad working offshore on an oil rig, looking after my brother and me full time proved to be impossible. Fortunately, this was boom time for North Sea Oil and he had enough money put away to send us both to boarding school. I say fortunately because it meant we were looked after and educated. The three years spent there aren’t particularly fond memories but I suppose that’s a blog for another time. In any case, being a posh prep school in Scotland, one of the things we had to buy in preparation were kilts to wear on Sundays and for special occasions. I have to admit that kids’ kilts are very, very cute. But I still vividly remember standing in the small shop with my grandparents and staring in horror at our family tartan.
The Harpers weren’t a clan on their own, you see. We were attached to the Buchanan clan and the Buchanan tartan is, well, rather lurid. In my memory, its predominant colour was brown although checking on google now, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Anyway, we all very quickly made the decision to choose something different. I can’t remember what the end result was now but it was definitely something far different to what our family name called for.
That’s not to say, however, that it was a bad thing to be a Harper. Another memory I have from being a kid is my dad telling me with glee about a fantasy book he was reading. One of the characters stated quite categorically that he wanted to go to hell because ‘hell was where the harpers were’. Harpers with a small ‘h’ but still… the implication was that harpers – or indeed Harpers – had so much fun they were sinful. Indeed, we were thus named for playing the part of harpers. As www.houseofnames.com says, “In ancient times the harper was considered an important figurehead whereby Brehon laws stated that the elegance and music of the harp “deserved” a noble status.” Now I’m not particularly musical but I do like being elegant and noble!
Dodgy tartans notwithstanding, there is something very romantic about the whole idea of Scottish clans. From the sense of belonging to ancient hierarchy and deep-seated loyalty, there’s a mystique about them that extends beyond what I know of their history. Of course there are the famous stories, such as the shocking Glencoe massacre involving the Campbells and the Macdonalds, but there’s also a myriad of other lesser known tales. Delve into any part of Scottish history and it’s fascinating. It’s also ripe for any number of fantasy tales. After I left boarding school, I spent the rest of my childhood growing up in a small town called Stonehaven which, fascinatingly, lies at the top of an imaginary line drawn between the Highlands and the Lowlands. They say write about what you know and, while I don’t know magic or dragons or how to fight, my upcoming series Gifted Thief imagines a Scotland where the Lowlands have been given over entirely to demons and the Highlands are run by 24 magically inclined Clans. Officially the Harpers aren’t amongst them but I might find a way to sneak them in somewhere!
I live in Malaysia, a beautiful, friendly tropical country. For most people that probably conjures up images of blue skies, swaying palm trees and sunny weather. Most of the time that’s true. Kuala Lumpur, even as a busy, traffic-congested capital city is surprisingly green. There are a lot of trees. Malaysia itself is one of those happily located places in the world, much like the UK in fact, which manages to escape most of nature’s ravages. There aren’t earthquakes or typhoons or active volcanoes to worry about. When the tragic and devastating tsunami of 2004 struck, it would be fair to say that Malaysia got off lightly. Thailand to the north had over 5000 deaths. Indonesia to the south had a staggering 130,000. Malaysia’s total was 68. The island of Sumatra essentially shielded Malaysia’s coasts from the worst. Unfortunately, there’s no protection from the ravages of man.
Since around the start of July, many South-East Asian countries have been affected by air pollution – or haze – that’s sweeping in from Indonesia as a result of slash and burn farming practices. Sometimes, there will be a thunderstorm or two and the skies clear for a few days. Most of the time, Kuala Lumpur is shrouded in smog. On the worst days, when I wake up, I taste the burning in my mouth. Friends’ Facebook posts are littered with ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of views from their apartments and houses. The difference is staggering. Sporting events at every level have being cancelled. This week alone schools were ordered to be closed from Monday to Thursday because the API (Air Pollution Index) levels were simply too high to be deemed safe for children. That is usually when the numbers reach above 200 or ‘very unhealthy’. Imagine what it must be like in Indonesia. On October 2nd, Palangkaraya hit 1,986.
The situation has been exacerbated this by year by the El Nino effect. There are numerous suggestions and theories about when it will all end. Some say next month. Some say it will go on until March. There have to be considerably grave concerns about the long term effect on the health of millions and millions of people, not to mention the planet. I remember years ago sitting in lesson after lesson where the dangers of the hole in the ozone layer were spelled out and using CFC gases or driving a car without a catalytic converter was potentially going to destroy the world. When I look out my window, it seems like we’ve learned nothing though. It’s not just here – think about Volkswagen.
It’s easy to point the finger and blame others for what’s happening, but maybe we’re all culpable. We all demand cheap products. We all could do more to recycle or cut down on our carbon footprints. I had a long Skype chat with a good friend today who’s vegan and he was telling me about how difficult veganism can be nowadays. You’d think it would be easier as it’s grown in popularity. Instead, companies all around the world have jumped in and worked out ways to label their products as vegan. Yes, they are vegan but very often they’re not ethically sourced or produced either. They might not be lying per se but their products still also seem to go against almost every tenet of veganism.
I don’t have a solution to any of this. Or even a conclusion because right now it doesn’t appear that there ever will be one. There is a quotation that I’ve found, however, by Terry Swearingen. I don’t know who he (or she) is or if he even really said it, but it seems apt: “We are living on the planet as if we have another one to go to.”
I should probably make one thing clear before I really begin – I have NO problem sleeping. None whatsoever. I remember years ago UK TV did a show called Touch The Truck which had been brought over from the States. It was probably even in pre-Channel 5 years so they can’t be blamed. It involved a bunch of contestants who had to stay awake for as long as they could while, well, touching a truck. If they took their hand off for any moment, or fell asleep while standing up, they were out. The winner won … the truck. It was streamed live and, I might be wrong, but I think the contestants lasted four days. I have no idea why on earth someone thought this would make exciting television but there you go.
While I constantly hanker over going on The Amazing Race or Survivor, despite my inadequacy at wearing bikinis, I would be utterly useless at Touch The Truck. Unless it was how long can you sleep for while touching the truck. I’d be pretty awesome at that. The one thing I am very, very good at is sleeping for long periods of time.
I don’t often remember my dreams. Most of the ones I do remember are fairly generic: teeth falling out dreams – yep. Dying dreams – yep. Sex dreams – yep. Naked in a crowd of people dreams – actually, no, but there’s still time. I do also occasionally get recurring dreams. They’re never exactly the same and they’re usually months, sometimes even years apart. They tend to be tied by place – there was a series of dreams I had all set in the same old house with secret corridors and hidden rooms. Those stopped in my mid-twenties. Nowadays, I have recurring dreams on a snowy mountain side. They always involve skiing in some way and they’re always on the same mountain but every other detail is different. I don’t analyse them too hard though. Whenever I get the dream again, it just feels a bit like re-visiting an old friend I’ve not seen for ages.
My joy of sleeping is what makes me feel so terribly sympathetic towards people who have so much trouble with it. For a while my dad had a girlfriend who had terrible insomnia. He’d go to bed and she would stay up all night cleaning. It absolutely baffled me. Even that, however, was nothing compared to the time I went on a group holiday to Indonesia to see orangutans in the wild (bloody amazing – if you ever get the chance then go!). I was sharing a room with an American girl from Washington who had sleep apnea. She’d warned me about it beforehand but when she stopped breathing several times in the middle of the night, I completely freaked.
When I was writing Blood Destiny, and looking for legendary monsters to include, I came across the Batibat. I was so fascinated, in fact, that I ended up giving her a starring role. As an old hag who lives in trees and suffocates people in their sleep, the Batibat contrasted perfectly with the more delicate tree nymphs. The Dreamweaver series, naturally, has caused me to delve even deeper into sleep disorders. For example, there’s a vast difference between a night terror and a nightmare. Equally, sleep paralysis is far more common than I possibly could have realised. Some good friends have since told me they suffer from it themselves. Imagine dreaming, but feeling awake at the same time. You’re not able to move but you’re being attacked by demons or people or the most terrifying creatures you can think of. It feels so real that you’re struck by sheer, uncompromising terror. I count myself incredibly fortunate that I’ve never experienced it.
Nobody really knows why we dream. There are plenty of theories, from Freud’s belief that dreams were related to wish fulfillment or others who hypothesise that they are to do with information processing. Naturally, there are swathes of websites and books on interpreting dreams. Considering the mysteries that still surround both our brains and dreams, however, it’s not beyond the realms of disbelief that there’s an awful lot more going on with them than we realise. Perhaps not to the Dreamlands extent but you never know!
Book Two of the Dreamweaver series, where dreams are explored in every sense of the word, will be released on Tuesday September 29th.
I’m not sure there’s ever been a time in my life which hasn’t been coloured by books. I love writing and to have the opportunity to do it full-time is beyond amazing but, first and foremost, I’m a reader. Urban Fantasy is naturally a huge love but I’ll read almost any genre. Right now I’m working my way through the Booker longlist, punctuating it occasionally with the odd UF joy or crime thriller.
When I was a kid, I was somewhat of a prodigy as far as reading went. Not in Maths (I never actually properly learnt my times tables – I think I found them too mundane to bother with) or Science or History, although one school I went to between the ages of 8 and 10 did teach Latin and I discovered a remarkable affinity for it (I’m not sure dead languages count though). I used to lie awake at night, terrified that I might die before I got to the end of my book. How would I ever cope if I didn’t find out what happened because I was in the ground?
I don’t recall ever being taught how to read. It was just something I always seem to remember doing, as if I emerged from the womb with the desire to pick up a good novel. I have distant recollections of being irritated at being taught to read in school when I already knew how and I have an incredibly vivid memory of the first time I was given a book which didn’t include pictures (Enid Blyton. I was her biggest fan. Fortunately all the explicit and implicit racism passed me by). I read Lord of The Rings when I was eight, skipping out all the ‘boring’ parts which didn’t include Frodo or Sam. I re-read it when I was nine, adding in Pippin and Merry’s chapters. I finally read every section when I was ten then bumbled along to a new school where the class were reading The Hobbit. I was bitterly disappointed.
As a teenager, I think I had a pretty healthy social life and yet I still went to the library two or three times every week. Oh, the joy when I was finally allowed to select books from the adult floor! I became a massive of fan of Jeffrey Archer and Michael Crichton and Stephen King. Some books I loved so much that I read and re-read them until I could almost recite them word for word. There was one book, the name of which is lost to me now, which was a trashy but hugely fun romance about a young woman kidnapped and taken to a sheik’s harem. It was a charity shop buy so there were no problems about reading it as often as I wished. Imagine my shock when I borrowed a book with a plot about politics in the Middle East where a side story involved a politician’s daughter being kidnapped for a harem and there were two full pages describing her ‘preparation’ for her deflowering which I knew I’d read somewhere before. Two minutes of investigation revealed exactly where they’d come from. The heavy political tome had plagiarised directly from the light-hearted romance. To this day, I regret that I didn’t do anything about it.
Even in this day and age, libraries are amazing places. In my early twenties, when I moved down to England and didn’t yet have a permanent address and so couldn’t join the local library, I spent whole afternoons scouring charity shops for things to read. Mills and Boons featured a lot! A lot of my reading ‘problems’ stem from the fact that because I read so quickly, I forget many books as soon as I put them down (assuming I don’t re-read them a gazillion times, of course). I swear, in pre-Kindle days, I once bought the same thriller three times because I’d forgotten I’d read it already. Twice.
The reason I’m including all these book related musings today is because I’ve just taken a new job. It’s only temporary and only part-time but it’ll give my brain time to clear itself. I can get very mugged up in the plots that I’m writing until the lines between reality and fiction are no longer clear! Anyway, the job is in the library of my old school. The person they had employed for the new school year wasn’t able to take up the position so I’ve stepped into the breach until someone permanent can be found. I’ll be helping primary kids to choose books and become more adept at reading, and aiding secondary kids with research for essays. The truth is that I can’t wait. Two full days a week surrounded by thousands of books? And then the rest of the week writing my own? Does life get ANY better?
Photo by faungg’s photos
At school, I was never the person who enjoyed PE. I’d do just about anything to get out of it, from ‘forgetting’ my kit to having my period six weeks in a row. Sport and me just didn’t mix. I was chubby and lazy and, quite frankly, I’d rather have curled up with a book and exercised my mind instead.
This sad state of affairs continued for a long time. I attended Stirling Uni in Scotland, which actually had a very strong sports department. One week, on a whim, I started going to circuit training before I hit the pub. I was pretty slim at that point but I still couldn’t even do sit ups. I quickly gave up. When I got older, with a decent teaching job, I tried to take my health more seriously and got a gym membership. I would faithfully attend aerobics lessons and attempt the treadmill. I found it all excruciatingly boring and I’d celebrate at the end of each session by buying myself a vast pack of salt and vinegar Kettle chips and chocolate. Needless to say, I only put on weight.
Not long after I moved to Malaysia, however, I came across bootcamp. A local company was offering a week of free sessions. It was at a ridiculous hour – 5.45am – 6.45am – but it meant I could still get into work with plenty of time to spare. I went along and hated it. For some unfathomable reason that I’m still not sure about, I bought a follow up month. I still hated it. And yet I still kept on going. After a long painful year, I realised I actually enjoyed it. Even getting up at stupid o’clock was becoming fun. I can’t say for sure when the change happened, but happen it did. I made lots of friends and, when the company began running obstacle races, I started taking part. Who knew that exercise could be fun??? In fact, I kept bootcamp up for four years, quitting only when the recurring back problems it gave me forced me out.
I’m not particularly fit at the moment. I still go to the gym and I still enjoy it but I’ve had a lot of time off exercise this year for all sorts of dull and uninspiring reasons. I’m still a big fan of those obstacle races though. This is why last night I found myself at Bloodrunner, a nearby 10km run with obstacles thrown in. And werewolves. (Yes. Volunteers were dressed in werewolf outfits. For a UF writer, it was somewhat bizarre.) It was nice that it ran at night though – it’s seriously hot in KL and that sun does my poor Scottish skin no favours at all.
I didn’t manage the course very quickly. In fact, my companion, whose legs are longer than a damn giraffe’s, had to wait a ridiculous time for me to meet him at the end. In my defence, I was held up on a narrow single file trail for quite some time. I’d still have finished long after him without it though. I complained a lot in my head. My legs were really sore. At the end, there was the almost inevitable run in with an ex-student who’d just finished too and looked as fresh as a daisy – while I was on the verge of collapse.
But today I feel good. I’m justified in lazing around all weekend. I’m tempted to go searching for the dates of this year’s Zombie Run. It’s almost like research with fitness thrown in at the same time.
My teenage self would be horrified at all this. But there’s a quote I used for the opening of Bloodlust (and back when Amazon used to include what readers had highlighted on author’s book pages, it was the part most often noted) from Jim Rohn: You must take personal responsibility. You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons, or the wind, but you can change yourself. That is something you have charge of.
Now, where are those salt and vinegar crisps?
Sometimes fiction collides with reality – and not in a good way. A new series I’ve been working on involves a main character who’s a thief. She generally goes for big ticket items but she’s also a mean pickpocket, although she targets a very specific group of people for her own reasons. I spent a fair bit of time researching how pickpockets operate. It’s disturbing how easy they can find it to steal.
This was terribly apparent a few days ago when I went out with some friends to a pub quiz. Admittedly, we were in a tourist area called Changkat Bukit Bintang. It’s rife with touts but there’s also a great atmosphere and lots going on, not to mention to some staggeringly good bars and restaurants. We were sitting outside on some high chairs. My friend had her bag looped around the back and she was sitting against. After an hour or two had passed (and I’d done the best I could to convince everyone that rhinoceros horns are made out of hair for the animal round) she got up to go to the bathroom and realised her bag had gone. It’s not the first time it’s happened to either her or any of the rest of us but it’s still heartbreaking when you think about the loss of her phone, her husband’s phone, all her bank and credit cards, ID card, driver’s license…
The bar had CCTV and although it was poor quality, we were able to watch the moment it happened. One man walked past and stopped to ‘use his phone’. Needless to say, none of us noticed him. He tried to take the bag, failed and tried again. As soon as he’d grabbed it, another guy sauntered past in the opposite direction and it was passed over. So even if we had spotted the lift, we’d have run after the first man – and he was carrying nothing. These were professionals who knew what they were doing. It sounds strange but the fact that I’ve been enjoying writing about someone who also does this kind of thing for a living – and who’s the heroine – made me feel extraordinarily guilty. It’s not that I’ve not been a victim of such incidents either. The worst was on holiday in New Zealand when the window of our hatchback hire car was smashed open and our suitcases were stolen (along with my passport, I might add – not the greatest way to spend your Christmas).
Unbelievably, the Eiffel Tower was closed in May of this year when staff walked off to protest the rise in pickpocketing (Clever Travel Companion). And while it might seem as if Kuala Lumpur is filled with bagsnatchers and pickpockets, it doesn’t even get a look in on the list of the top ten worst cities. Barcelona, if you’re interested, tops the list and almost all of the less than illustrious named cities are in Europe. Apparently, pickpockets hang out near signs that tell the unwary to ‘Beware Of Pickpockets’ because as soon as someone sees that sign, they immediately pat their pocket to check their valuables are still there – and the pickpocket then knows exactly where to aim for.
There’s lots of advice about how to avoid pickpockets. Use moneybelts, be aware in crowded situations, keep your bag hooked around something and so on. It’s all too easy to forget or to think that you’ve already done enough though. It’s also made me slightly less enamoured of my own fictional thief. Perhaps in book two I’ll have to make sure that she’ll develop a stronger conscience…
There’s a lot of power in names. As a teacher, at the start of each new school year, I was fortunate enough to learn the names of my students quickly. It’s by the far the easiest and quickest way to build a relationship and to show respect. Knowing the students’ names is vital for any sort of classroom management. There were always a couple of classes where I’d get some students’ names forever mixed up – typically they were already friends and sat together and giggled together. It wasn’t that I didn’t know their names. It was that I’d have a brain fart and use the wrong one, much like the students who’d call me mum. For anyone who’s not a teacher, that’s more common than you’d think!
The trouble for me was that as soon that year was over and those students graduated or moved onto to a different teacher, I forgot their names almost as quickly as I’d learnt them. I didn’t forget the students but my brain could only hold so much. I’ve lost count of the times old students have come back to say hello and, while I could remind them of the fabulous story or poem or essay they once wrote, I’d often not remember their actual name. This was painfully apparent last week when a former student appeared at the school where I volunteer. My brain went into meltdown and I blurted out the wrong name. There was considerable ensuing embarrassment.
Equally, it’s unfortunate that some names on a class list of unknown students flag immediate warnings. Fear the Chantelles, the Britneys, the Jodies, the Kyles, the Connors and the Jacks. It’s not fair – I know. I’m sorry if this comes across as too Katie Hopkins. It’s difficult to avoid though. Check out this article if you’re interested.
Still, I often find myself in a similar quandary as a reader. Sometimes, I will give up on a book a few chapters in but I dislike the name of the protagonist so much that I can’t face reading any more. I had those tables turned on me a couple of weeks ago when a beta reader returned a book with a comment that some of the names didn’t fit the characters. I could see her point and I changed a few of them. The trouble is that the book’s set in Scotland and the series will be called Highland Magic. So I changed Finn to Aifric and Al to Ruaridh. Now I’m thinking I’ll probably have to change them again because most readers outside of the Highlands will simply be puzzled (any advice here would be welcome! Feel free to leave a comment!).
I’d love to be able to be as clever as Charles Dickens or JK Rowling when it comes to naming characters. The main character of the afore-mentioned Highland Magic series is a thief called Integrity. But that’s nothing compared to the wonders of Dolores Umbridge or Ebenezer Scrooge. And consider how beautifully Anna Karenina trips off your tongue. The name itself is pure poetry. Or how about Boo Radley? I was disappointed he was absent from Lee’s Go Set A Watchman. But that’s as much because I love his name as his character.
Huckleberry Finn, anyone?
There’s a part of me that is convinced all those mythological creatures have to be real. Otherwise, how could they exist in so many different cultures? Of course, I also enjoy conspiracy theories so I’m not the greatest judge. Just saying.
Ancient Babylonians told tales of Lilitu, a female demon who drank the blood of babies. Lilitu gave rise to Lilith, a similar creature in Hebrew tales. Indeed, there are several similar characters found in Ancient Greek folklore – interestingly, all of them women. The idea of undead beings even appears in Homer’s Odyssey – although if you wished to communicate with those ones, you first had to drink blood yourself. Lucky old Odysseus. Personally, I particularly like the ancient Indian stories of vetala – creatures who would inhabit corpses and reanimate them. At least until they decided to sod off and find a better vessel anyway.
Perhaps the vamps took a bit of a break after those times and hid themselves away. Although stories of revenants (ghosts which could also reanimate corpses or were simply visible to the naked eye) abounded for centuries, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that vampires really came into their own. Europe, in particular Transylvania (naturally), went bloodsucker crazy.
There are a few very specific examples – such as that of Petar Blagojevich who died in 1725, reportedly returning the day after to have a wee chat with his son. Then his son dropped dead, along with several other villagers in the days following. Suspecting the worst, Petar’s body was exhumed. There were no normal signs of decomposition and his corpse was eventually burned. Of course, it would only take one contagious disease to cause those deaths and people did from time to time fall into the rather unfortunate situation of being mistakenly buried alive (hence the saying ‘saved by the bell’ – many Victorians were buried with their fingers attached to a string leading above ground to a bell which they could ring on the rare occasion they woke to find themselves in a coffin and wearing their Sunday best). However, this fairly recent news report of a corpse found with a stake through its heart is somewhat seared in my memory.
It was also around that time when sex began to play a large role. Female Romany vampires would return to their families and lead normal lives – but they’d eventually exhaust their husbands with their sexual demands. Croatian vampires arise as a result of incest. In fact, vampiric legends and sexual proclivity seem to go hand in hand. It’s good to know that some things don’t change.
Vampire stories aren’t confined to Europe. The Aztecs had slightly similar tales, as do various African tribes. Particularly disgusting is the Madagascan ramanga who drinks blood and eats toenail clippings. Here in Malaysia, there’s the Penanggalan – a beautiful woman who can detach her head so she can fly it around in search of victims to sink her fangs into. Now there’s a neat trick.
Bram Stoker may have defined the modern vampire as we know it today but he certainly didn’t invent it. Charles Darwin wasn’t kidding around with evolution – bloodsuckers are always changing. Sparkly, sexy, scary – what will we come up with next?
It’s a strange time of year in expat land. With the school year at an end, lots of families are relocating – some back home to Europe or Australia or wherever and some on to new jobs in new countries. You get very used to people coming and going and there are lots of new holiday destinations to visit as old friends end up all over the world. It doesn’t stop it from feeling very bittersweet, however.
I’ve personally been living abroad for ten years now. It’s easy to remember as an anniversary, even for someone as useless at dates as I am, because on July 6th 2005 I travelled to London to collect my first work visa for Tokyo. I vividly remember standing on the tube platform waiting for a train and the announcer telling us all that London had won the Olympics. The response was remarkably muted. Maybe all of us commuters were simply focused on other matters. Of course, the next day those trains were being blown up.
There is something remarkable, however, about living in a different country. You gain a completely different perspective on so many things, not to mention experiencing so much. It’s not like the perspective you have while on holiday. When you live somewhere, it’s just … different. Prior to moving abroad, I lived in an entirely homogeneous corner of the UK. Now I’m in a true melting pot. I worry about the simplified portrait often painted in the Western media of the Muslim faith and how quickly people who’ve never experienced anything beyond the terrible news headlines swallow it as the sole representation of a billion people. I can’t help comparing the pupils I taught in the UK to the international school students I taught for nine years in Tokyo and KL, to the refugee children I voluntarily teach now – and their frankly incomparable lifestyles. I marvel at the way I can walk down the street here and be surrounded by people from every creed, color and religion. In Malaysia, just about every religion is given credence, meaning there are a gazillion public holidays (I’m not complaining!).
Of course, not every experience is deep or thought-provoking. I was almost giddy with excitement at coming across a multi-pack of Monster Munch last week in the supermarket. In Tokyo, beans on toast was considered about the most wonderful meal and a serious cause for celebration. You can take the girl out of Scotland but…
In any case, it is the people who really make the experience worthwhile. I’m truly sad every year to see friends leave but I know we’ll keep in touch and that they’ll have fabulous new experiences in their new lives. Bon voyage, sayonara, auf wiedhersen, farewell. I’ll be in touch xxx