Friday 28 June 2019

Pagan Writers Community Group

Back in 2013, I ended up caretaker of a Facebook page called Pagan Writers Community. You can read about how it happened here. We've now got close to 56,000 followers. 

Three days ago, my friend Steve Sholl, who runs The Amateur Writers' Community, suggested opening a group alongside the page. A page is basically an advertising board. The page owner just posts what they like for people to see. A group allows members to interact and talk to each other. Active discussions rise to the top of the feed, whereas, with a page, everything sinks to the bottom. A group is more interactive.

Over the past three days, more than 100 people have joined. We're in the process of inviting all 55,000 page followers to join, but Facebook only seems to allow us to invite a very small number of people each day, so it's going to take a while. But, if you're interested, you can jump straight to the group here, and apply to join.

It's really exciting, but also a bit scary, as I already help moderate a local community group in Kigali with over 7,500 members. I enjoy doing it most of the time, except when you get arseholes and spammers, but I think I'm going to need to take on help with the PWC group, to prevent my life becoming one long Facebook feed. 

Thankfully, several good writing friends have joined, so I'm looking forward to reconnecting and making use of their time.

Wednesday 26 June 2019

The Diary of a Bookseller

Finished this yesterday and missing it already.

Shaun Bythell owns The Bookshop, Wigtown - Scotland's largest second-hand bookshop. It contains 100,000 books, spread over a mile of shelving, with twisting corridors and roaring fires, and all set in a beautiful, rural town by the edge of the sea. A book-lover's paradise? Well, almost ...

In these wry and hilarious diaries, Shaun provides an inside look at the trials and tribulations of life in the book trade, from struggles with eccentric customers to wrangles with his own staff, who include the ski-suit-wearing, bin-foraging Nicky. He takes us with him on buying trips to old estates and auction houses, recommends books (both lost classics and new discoveries), introduces us to the thrill of the unexpected find, and evokes the rhythms and charms of small-town life, always with a sharp and sympathetic eye.

He does come across as a real-life Bernard Black, if rather more grounded and emotionally cognisant. I've spent time in the past following my friend Paul around a number of bookshops up near Stirling. I blogged about Kings Bookshop in Callander, and some fabulous old poetry tomes from Stirling Books. I adore the dusty back rooms and cobwebbed corners of a bookshop, more so now that I live in a country where bookshops are rarer than a first folio and those that do exist are dusted daily. The book certainly hit me with a tide of nostalgia.

Again, living in a world of eternal equinox (great name for a band, as someone recently pointed out), where the weather's sometimes a little wetter, sometimes a little dryer, but mostly constant, it was nice to be reminded of how extreme the seasons can be in the UK. Tales of warm fires and snow-laden drives through howling winds, and then the discomfort of a sweaty summer and the sense of renewal that comes with spring.

There were some extremely poignant reflections on mortality whilst clearing out the bookshelves of deceased estates, such as the daughter of an Italian immigrant who had inherited her father's thriving restaurant only for it to dwindle with the decades:

Downstairs, the big glass windows were boarded up, and the place, once busy, was as silent as the grave, save for the sound of the rain coming through the roof and dripping onto the floor. The optimism of that young Italian man, with his Scottish wife, his thriving business and his young daughter, the courage it took him to move to another country, learn a new language, and start a new business and a new life, could never have anticipated the sad end that fate dealt to his dream.

It also dropped some insider lingo that is rather fascinating, such as the word incunabula, referring to any book published before 1501.

I strongly share the author's dislike of Amazon, and have blogged before about trying to avoid it - with limp-wristed success. I have an uneasy love-mostly-hate relationship with it, and it was interesting to see how it's affected the second-hand book trade.

Diary of a Bookseller is well worth a read, and you can follow the shop on facebook and twitter. They also run a random book club, which is currently closed to new members, but worth keeping an eye on for the future.

Sunday 23 June 2019


Only noticed Madeline Miller has another book out when I saw someone tweet about buying a copy during their weekly shop.

I really enjoyed Song of Achilles, and very glad she didn't take another ten years to write this one. I'm an absolute sucker for stories of gods and monsters. Fond memories as a kid of sitting on my aunt's narrow boat, Celia, with my nose pressed to the illustration's of a book about Greek legends. I love anyone who can make those larger-than-life characters live and breathe. 

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child - not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power - the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

With unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language and page-turning suspense, Circe is a triumph of storytelling, an intoxicating epic of family rivalry, palace intrigue, love and loss, as well as a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man's world.

Bit of a canny marketing move to focus in on Circe, what with all that Game of Thrones hype going on. Lot of people searching for Circe, I just wonder how many get Lena Headey and how many get the book.

Whatever, I absolutely loved this. Think the cover's gorgeous, the writing is crisp and vivid, and the narration, by Perdita Weeks, was absolutely perfectly suited. 

Some choice lines:

I had never felt a lash. I did not know the colour of my blood.

... all I saw were faces bright as whetted blades.

Sorcery cannot be taught. You find it yourself, or you do not. 

What was the fight over?’ ‘Let me see if I can remember the list.’ He ticked his fingers. ‘Vengeance. Lust. Hubris. Greed. Power. What have I forgotten? Ah yes, vanity, and pique.’ ‘Sounds like a usual day among the gods,’ I said.

His guilt was thick in the air as winter mists.

Death's Brother is the name that poets give to sleep. For most men those dark hours are a reminder of the stillness that waits at the end of days.

If there was some other purpose, we would never know it. All the things he had done in life must stand now as they were.

For gods are the opposite of death.

[In the afterlife] Some walked hand in hand with those they had loved in life; some waited, secure that one day their beloved would come. And for those who had not loved, whose lives had been filled with pain and horror, there was the black river Lethe, where one might drink and forget. Some consolation.

This was a treat, and I look forward to finding out who she will write about next.

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Putting TEFL to Good Use


Back in 2007, I took a weekend TEFL course and a side certificate in teaching English grammar. I was completing my MA at the time and knew I wanted to leave Cardiff after that. I just wasn't sure where I'd go or what I'd do, so teaching English seemed like a fair back-up plan. As it was, I was accepted by VSO shortly afterwards and left for Rwanda as a Sign Language researcher. I made a good friend on the TEFL course, comedian Gareth Postans, but never went on to use the training.

That was until a couple of months ago, when I was approached by one of my editing clients, the lovely Three Mountains Learning Advisors. They create excellent online e-learning courses on everything from gender-based violence to water resources management. 

I've been working as an editor for them for about a year now, so they asked if I could come and teach their staff technical English and editing skills. It's sort of training myself out of a job, but that's going to take a while, so I said yes to the challenge.

I used to teach a creative writing course a couple of years back, but technical writing is a rather different ball game. A lot of the same rules apply, grammar in particular, but the way you structure writing and the language you use is very different.

It's been really good fun and I'm getting a real kick out of how well the group is progressing. We do a lot of group editing where we project passages on the wall and work out how to clean them up. They're all quite advanced in English, which makes things entertaining as we're now at a point where we're discussing things like ethical issues in translating subtitles - what you can change and what you can't - and how punctuation and word choice changes meaning. It's got my mind working overtime. So many things you take for granted about English, but are actually quite difficult to explain. It's definitely something I think I'd like to do more of. 

We did a really heavy session on punctuation the other day, so today I introduced them to the poem According to my Mood by Benjamin Zephaniah, which helped to take the pressure off.

The office is down a suburban street in Kigali. Very green and quiet, so it's a lovely walk home afterwards as the sun is setting. The other week, I saw this beautiful rainbow.

Tuesday 18 June 2019

YouTube's Threatening Tone Over Copyright

I've just had a really unpleasant experience with YouTube.

Stumbled upon an account which had ripped off a sample of the Rosy Hours audiobook. They'd changed the narration pitch to make it sound like Emma was on helium, and were offering a free download.

I'd never heard of this account before and they certainly didn't have permission to do that, so I looked up how to make a copyright infringement claim and filled out the form. I provided all of the information they asked for, along with a link to the video.

Simple, right?

The next day, I received an exceedingly intimidating e-mail from YouTube:

We are concerned that some of the information in your take-down request may be fraudulent. Please understand that YouTube receives a large number of fraudulent copyright take-down requests, and we take abuse of that process very seriously.... You understand that abuse of this form will result in termination of your YouTube account.

That's lovely. Accusing me of making a fraudulent copyright claim against someone who has - if they looked at the video - very clearly ripped off my work.

Really nasty tone to use and obviously designed to prevent anyone from raising their voice again.

Not accustomed to being bullied, I replied:

That is my book. I wrote it. It is published and owned by Ghostwoods Books. It is narrated by Emma Newman. They have changed her voice and ripped off the audiobook. They are offering it for free. This breaches my rights as an author and the publisher's rights.

I do not know the person who created that video. They do not have the right to do that as it is copyrighted material.

Don't understand where the problem is.

They very swiftly sent a reply telling me the material has been removed.

But they didn't need any additional information to do that. Everything I said in my reply was included in the original take-down request. Seems they just wanted to throw their weight around.

I've written to my union, the Society of Authors, about this to see whether it's a common issue that other writers have encountered.

YouTube's attitude seems absolutely unacceptable to me.

Wednesday 12 June 2019

Children of Lir Blog Tour

Finally set a release date for The Children of Lir - 15 August 2019.

I've teamed up with Fraser's Fun House for a week-long blog tour. If you run a book blog or blog about folklore or Irish legend, you can find all the details here, as well as order a review copy.

Tuesday 11 June 2019

The Brain: The Story of You

Delved into this the other day. Very interesting information, but found the narration a bit hard going. I went from Jonathan Keeble, who has a calm, steady voice that treats you as an intellectual equal, to David Eagleman, who is a fascinating neuroscientist, but does rather treat every sentence as though it ends in an exclamation mark. The enthusiasm is endearing, until he gets onto the topic of tortured kittens in lab experiments and children abandoned in Eastern European orphanages. Then it just starts to sound a little strange.

Anyway. Just part of my neurological idiolect, the tangle of synapses that make me who I am and determine my likes and dislikes.

Some of my top discoveries from this one:

Particular kinds of epilepsy make people more religious. Parkinson's disease often makes people lose their faith, whereas the medication for Parkinson's can often turn people into compulsive gamblers.

On the topic of elderly couples resembling each other. I've always known that we mirror other people's body language, but apparently we also mirror facial expression, so subtly that we often don't realise we're doing it. So, if someone smiles or frowns, the muscles in our own face try on the expression for size, to get a better reading of what it means. Elderly couples have been mirroring each other so long that the lines in their faces start to develop in the same place.

Botox not only makes it harder for other people to read your facial expressions, as the muscles have been paralysed, but it also makes it harder for people who have had Botox to read other people's expressions, because their muscles can't mirror other people's in order to get a quick read.

There was also a really interesting part dedicated to genocide and what goes wrong in the human brain to allow for the breakdown of empathy, which is usually very strong in people as a species. The issue was described by neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried in 1997 as Syndrome E. Living in Rwanda, and having visited Auschwitz, Belsen, Hungary and Armenia, it's a topic that always rolls around at the back of my mind. This was a very informative section, looking at how the brain succumbs to cognitive fracture, compartmentalising actions, emotions and ideation. There's an excellent article here.

The book was full of quirky, and often more light-hearted, examples of weird things we do when we think we're in control of our actions, but when the brain actually takes over. It also dives into the question of reality and whether it actually exists. All the fun stuff, and nice and bite-sized. About six hours to History of Western Philosophy's thirty-eight.

A fun, enlightening book.

Thursday 6 June 2019

Language of the Lake

Just got back from a lovely road trip with friends. It ended in Kibuye, on the shores of Lake Kivu, where I managed to finish the final hard-copy edit of The Children of Lir.

Dramatic skies and beautiful sunsets - the perfect place to finish my book about the Irish god of the Sea and his children, turned to swans upon a lake. 

The book is scheduled for release on 15th August 2019, with a blog tour to accompany the launch. If you are a book blogger and would like to take part, please do drop me a line for a review copy.