Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Me, Neil Gaiman, Jamie Byng (Canongate)

Me, Neil Gaiman, and Jamie Byng (of Canongate and World Book Night) looking suitably dark and moody. Photo credit (c) Toby Madden 

Sometime in the late hours of the night/early hours of this morning, I finished Neil Gaiman’s latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is out in June this year. (A good time for books, obviously. I’m just saying.)

After I had ‘turned’ the final electronic page (I cannot wait to have this in a physical – oh god, I almost said proper! – edition), I had this strange moment where the floodgates I’d been trying so hard to keep tightly shut, opened ever so slightly. I let in a wave of emotion I’d been struggling to contain (or at least, to put a lid on – not permanently, but just while there has been so much stuff going on that I know I just can’t deal with right now…), and I sat on the sofa in my darkened living room trying to orient myself back in the real world. Oh yes, here is my mug of tea – gone stone cold. Oh look, there is my laptop – abandoned. Oh wow, is that the time?

I’d been held in the book’s grip for most of the night, shut away in the story and in that place where nothing and no one can reach me to break the spell. (Only ‘The End’ has that power). It felt strange, and cathartic, and affecting… and for a while I remembered what truly great books can do to a person. Or, more specifically, what a great book can do to me.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane arrived with me at the right time. That is to say, a time when I’ve been thinking a lot about oceans. There’s my workload and to-do list, which feel ocean-wide and ocean-deep. There’s the ocean of books out there that soon the tiny drop of water that is my book will be diving in to, and the fear that it will make barely a ripple – let alone something resembling a wave. There’s the literal ocean, that big one to the west of me, the one that separates me from my family and makes me feel so far away from some of the people and places that I love. The imminent reality of having several oceans separating me from my sister, who is planning that big jump to the land down under. And then there’s the ever-present desire to pack it all in and sail away on an ocean for a while, journal and pen in hand…

Even though I know all these oceans can be navigated, they still feel like they dominate my world.

The ocean in Neil’s book doesn’t seem like much more than a pond at first glance. But of course, it is far more than that. The ocean belongs to the land of the mysterious Hempstocks – three generations of women, all living together on a farm. There is a strong sense of nostalgia to the England portrayed in the book that reminds me of my dad’s stories of growing up in Nutfield, Surrey, on acres of land where you had to walk to school through muddy fields, before large farms made way for housing developments and villages gave way to towns. The food served at the Hempstock farm is the kind of warm, cosy cooking I am served from my aunt’s Aga – shepherd’s pie with fluffy mash and rich mince, spotted dick with lashings of homemade custard, thick slices of bread toasted between wire mesh and covered in butter and jam. Ever-present is Neil’s wonderful interplay with language, and sentences you want to cherish forever.

Ocean is an intensely personal book – even more than just in terms of how much Neil drew on his own experiences to shape it. It’s the type of book that has the power to affect each reader differently. For me, at least, it opened up a vast well of memories of being a child and discovering things that adults never could – some of them terrifying, most of them wondrous. While I never came across a pond that was actually an ocean, I remember believing that the hollows in old, gnarled oak trees in Richmond Park were the doorways to Another World, and that if I climbed high enough the branches would allow me to reach the place beyond the clouds. It also reminded me of the monsters of my childhood imagination – and how the monsters that don’t look like monsters, but look more like people, are actually the scariest of all.

But returning to the late hours of last night, the resounding sense of finishing Ocean was of wanting to dive straight back in and start reading it all over again. Because as terrifying and overwhelming and vast an ocean can be, they can also be restorative, and healing. They can remind you of the awe that exists in the world and that it’s okay to be swept away in it for a while, even as it’s equally okay to come back. And sometimes – if you try hard enough – you can fit that ocean into a bucket and carry it with you, so that maybe the weight of all that water won’t seem so heavy after all.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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Level 2 by Lenore Appelhans

Oh man, less than 50 days to The Oathbreaker’s Shadow UK publication. Now that *is* scary! I’m working on quite a few blogs and giveaways over the next few weeks, and there should be a first chapter excerpt available very soon! I’ve also been loading things up on Pinterest – go have a look there if you want some visual representation 🙂

But throughout the lead-up to the release, I’m going to pay things forward by shouting out to some brilliant Lucky 13 and Author Allsort books I’ve been reading recently. First up is Level 2 by the brilliant Lenore Appelhans, which was published earlier this year by Usborne books… which means you can head out and get a copy RIGHT NOW.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend Lenore’s launch party, which was held in a very cool venue known as the ‘ice tank’ in Central London. Everything in it was bright, industrial white – the perfect setting for Level 2. Usborne, Lenore’s publishers, had brought along some neat props – but the crazy telephone contraption thingy I’m wearing on my head gave me neck ache for days after! Worth it for awesome photos like this though:

Goofing around with Lenore at her launch!

Goofing around with Lenore at her launch!

Now, how about the book itself…

(Quick caveat: Level 2 is actually going to be better known in the US as ‘The Memory of After’, but will still be known as Level 2 over here in the UK. I love The Memory of After as a new title: it fits the book perfectly!)

Fiction-LEVEL-2-196x300Level 2 by Lenore Appelhans

Felicia Ward is dead. Trapped in Level 2, the hive-like waiting room between Earth and Heaven, she has spent endless days downloading and replaying memories of her family, friends, boyfriend, and the guy who broke her heart. Now a rebellion is brewing in this limbo world, and Felicia is the key. Suspended between Heaven and Earth, she must make a choice between two worlds, two lives and two loves. Her decision will change everything. An astonishing, imaginative and out-of-this-world story of love, life and death from debut author Lenore Applehans.

I really sped through this book as Lenore has developed a totally immersive concept and a very original portrayal of the Afterlife. Felicia is a complex character, and I love the idea of being able to access, share and rate memories with other people. Despite it being a novel of ‘what’s next’ after death, the memories of Felicia’s life were probably my favourite sections to read. One of the main elements that struck me was how naturally Lenore weaves in the details of Felicia’s travels. For me, the most vivid part was when Felicia travels into the Turkish hills to hunt for bell-ringing goats with her dad. Lenore’s writing completely transported me there – and I was amazed when she told me that this wasn’t actually one of her travel experiences (although she does have many!) but an encounter related to her by her husband. She really made it come to life.

An amazing debut, a blend of contemporary with science fiction, that deals with the big questions as well as delving closely into the personal relationships between characters. Highly recommended.

Buy it from Amazon UK

SciFi Weekender!

I spent the past weekend in Pwllheli, North Wales at SciFi Weekender #SFW4. SFW4 is an annual science fiction and fantasy convention that attracts hundreds of genre fans from across the UK to remote holiday parks… where they get to mingle with authors, actors, artists and other such professional folk while dancing to a heady mix of Craig Charles and DJ Dark Knight (to name but a few).

I was there with my “editor hat” on, although I did have a stack of The Oathbreaker’s Shadow postcards to give away! Woohoo! I will likely do a more professional post over on the HarperVoyager blog tomorrow, but I wanted to give a little update over here too.

This was my first SF weekender, and my third con. It had a very different feel to Eastercon or Fantasycon – for one thing, the cosplay was incredible at SFW4! I’ve never been in an environment like that before and I absolutely loved it. I definitely felt like I had missed out by not dressing up, so next time I might do 😉 I didn’t get to do as much ‘fan’ stuff as I might have liked because I was really focused on the author panels and the trading zone, where HarperVoyager had a stall. As a result, I missed some of what people said were the highlights of the event – like the Just a Minute panel, the interviews and the films.

I did, however, get to experience that utterly freezing cold nights in a caravan that the weekend is so famous for! It seemed to be a bit luck of the draw whether you got a caravan with radiators or not – if you didn’t, you didn’t have heat! That was… interesting, to say the least. I might be Canadian, but I like to keep my subzero temperatures OUTSIDE, if possible.

The highlights, then, for me…

– My ‘Future of Publishing’ panel, which had been pretty much decimated by lack of participants showing up, but was then saved by a really fun chat with Amanda Rutter of Strange Chemistry and Sam Stone of Telos Moonrise.

– The cosplay at the Masquerade ball (fabulous)

– The ‘Voyager’ dinner – amazing having Peter V. Brett, James Smythe and Stacia Kane all around the same table… loads of fun.

– Handing out Voyager-themed tote bags (which went down a storm!) and chatting to folks who came up to our table

– The moment I moved from my freezing caravan to the warmth of James Smythe’s (he originally had the caravan all to himself, by the end of it there were four of us moved in!)

– Popping over to Anglesey to visit my aunt who lives in Beaumaris.

And now, for some pictures!!

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The “Here Come the Girls” panel

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James Smythe earning his keep by handing out some Voyager tote bags

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Me, Peter V. Brett and the publicity ladies feel the Force…

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The Voyager table

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We saw a bit of beautiful Wales too…

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Some sunshine sheep 🙂

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On meeting JK Rowling & my review of The Casual Vacancy

So last Thursday, I checked off one lifelong dream: meeting JK Rowling.

The event was held at the Southbank Centre in London, in front of a 900-strong adoring crowd. As JK Rowling walked in (on some truly vertiginous Jimmy Choos) the crowd leapt to their feet, me alongside them. In fact, I’m going to blame the outpouring of goodwill towards the author for my next move… which was to promptly burst into tears. It was a big moment.

Most of the talk was broadcast live, and has been picked over by various blogs and media so I won’t go into it in great detail. But JK Rowling was charming, funny (especially when doing a West Country accent!), and so gracious towards audience questions. She didn’t refuse to answer questions about Potter (as some authors might have done), and she even accepted a gift from a Spanish audience member. It was incredibly sweet, and I wish I had had his guts!

Then the stampede for the signing – honestly, I don’t know why they didn’t go row-by-row! It ended up being that I was one of the last 10-20 people in line. This was annoying because it meant waiting for almost 2 hours to get my book signed… but in return, I got to have a mini-chat with Jo herself! It went something like this.

*I am rushed towards the table by the staff* [at this point, I had mini flashbacks to the George R.R. Martin signing we did, as I was one of the minions moving people along!]
Me: “Hi Jo, I just wanted to quickly say thank you so much – you are a huge inspiration to me as a writer and I have my first book coming out next year from Random House.”
JK: “Oh my god, that’s amazing! Congratulations. It’s so great to meet a fellow writer!”
Me: *speechless* *floored* *dies*
*I am then frowned at and rushed away*

My fellow Rowling-ite, Natasha, wasn’t able to get a picture while I was at the table, but I stood there grinning like a maniac for one after!

As I stood for the photo, my hands were literally shaking. I don’t think I realized what a visceral reaction I would have to meeting her – but then, she is one of my biggest literary idols! I can’t imagine what I’d be like if someone put me in front of  Philip Pullman.

I got the signature! As you can see. But what about the book? I deliberately haven’t read any other reviews or commentary before posting my own. Read on for my review…

Continue reading

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JK Rowling and Me

This week I am extremely excited, because it is the release week of The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling.

I know, I know,  you’re thinking: Really? I’m actually excited about this book, despite the weird cover and the strangely bland synopsis? I’ve found lately that I’ve had to temper my outward enthusiasm for JKR’s work, especially in my role now as an editor, and especially in my role now as an editor of science fiction and fantasy. I’ve encountered a not insubstantial number of colleagues and authors who have never read, or had a desire to read, any of the Harry Potter series.

But, let the truth be known: I am a passionate fangirl of Harry Potter, and – as I’ve grown older and become a writer myself – a passionate admirer of JK Rowling.

There have been a few interviews with her recently, in the Guardian and USA Today. I’ve loved seeing her be a little more candid, a little more open in these interviews – but that’s because, like most Potterheads, I long to feel like I know this woman who so defined my childhood with her writing.

I thought that the video interview was quite telling. I was surprised to see JK (I just cannot bring myself to call her Jo, it feels too personal, too much like I’m pretending I know her in real life) appear relaxed, funny, gently self-deprecating – such a contrast to her interviewer who appears stiff (intimidated maybe?) and distinctly lacking in a sense of humour. In a way, I feel sorry for the interviewer – it must be daunting to be granted such a high profile piece, but I do wish it had a slightly more conversational air about it. I feel like she might have revealed even more that way.

That being said, the written version of the Guardian interview is impressive, and despite myself, almost moved me to tears. There’s something wonderful about seeing JK Rowling bringing out her first adult novel. It’s not hard to imagine the pressure she must feel – of course, she references it herself in the interview – and I think she is incredibly brave to be continuing to write.

But then, that bravery isn’t so surprising now that I find myself an about-to-be published author myself. She is a writer through and through – and that doesn’t change with mega-success or – at the other end of the spectrum – mega-failure. I’m so glad that there is nothing (not even a billion pounds) that would stop her from writing. It’s also gratifying to see she feels a sense of freedom – freedom to write something out of her (our?) comfort zone, freedom to take her time, freedom to write under her own name.

 “I’ve published it because it’s what I really wanted to write. My writing path isn’t dependent on what people expect or say of the work. I will just keep plowing my furrow.”

I am a child of the Rowling era. Harry, Ron and Hermione were my best friends. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the book I loved most – and consequently was my favourite movie. I attended every midnight launch from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire onwards. For the release of the final book, I went to the midnight release at Indigo on Bloor Street in Toronto, despite having had major surgery the night before. Yes, I was supposed to be resting. Yes, my mum came with me to act as a bodyguard and prevent people from touching me. But there was no way I was missing getting my hands on that book the moment it was available to me. I remember reading all the stats from that night: three books per second sold through Indigo stores, over 96 books sold per second in the US, etc. and thinking, “Look at the impact this book has had. This book. Our book.” It was a sense of community that I haven’t seen replicated since.

I’ve been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to get my very own Deathly Hallow, I’m an ardent member of Pottermore, I’ve visited Christopher Little’s (her literary agent at the time) offices and ogled at the numerous first editions and translations, I’ve dressed up to see the movies, I’ve been to HP conferences, I’ve written university essays on Harry Potter, I’ve RPGed, and I’ve read each book more times than I can remember, in both French and English… and that maybe puts me in the ‘Minor Fan’ category. But even as a minor fan, Harry Potter so much defined who I am that I almost can’t escape its influence on my reading and on my chosen two careers, as both editor and writer.

And now, this Thursday, I’m going to the Southbank Centre to finally, FINALLY, see JK Rowling in person, and have her sign my copy of The Casual Vacancy. To say I’m excited is… well, severe understatement to say the least. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to hold it together.

And then, after that, I’m going to get on a train to Fantasycon, and I’m going to read The Casual Vacancy. Because first and foremost, I’ve been a fan of JK Rowling as a writer — and I can’t wait to devour what she has written next.

Watch this space for an update.

Before reading these articles, I never released JK Rowling was a West Country gal. Maybe that’s why I’ve ended up drawn to a West Country boy. And living in Clapham Junction too. Now all that’s needed is for me to move to Edinburgh. Hmm…

Earth Girl and other links from around the blogosphere

I’m deep in the revisions cave at the moment (I’m aiming to have my edit back to my editor by the end of the month, but the end of the month is approaching far too rapidly for my liking!), so blogging has fallen a little bit off the radar. Yet I wanted to take to the blog to congratulate Liz de Jager, who has just become Juliet Mushens’ latest client! She’s done a great in-depth interview with Juliet on her blog, which offers some good insight into agenting life. Check out her blog here: http://www.lizdejager.co.uk/2012/08/interview-with-juliet-mushens/

Also, I forgot to mention that I was on The Lucky 13s blog the other day, chatting about publishing misconceptions.

And finally, yesterday was the publication date for Janet Edwards’ Earth Girl, which is a fantastic YA science fiction debut from a British author. I vividly remember the day when Earth Girl came in on submission, and I knew it was something special when I finished the manuscript (later on that same day) with a huge smile on my face. In fact, I loved it so much I even tweeted about it on the HarperVoyager twitter, which I was running at the time.

 

I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to read YA fiction that is smart, funny and refreshingly original. Don’t look to Earth Girl to find a heroine pining wistfully after a crush, but do pick it up if you want to see a flawed, feisty heroine overcoming huge obstacles to achieve her dreams – oh yes, and maybe finding some romance along the way! Although for once it is with an actually swoon-worthy guy who stands side-by-side with our heroine, not up on a pedestal.

On that note, I’m interviewing Janet Edwards on The Lucky 13s blog, so head over there to find out a bit more about the book and the author!

Happy Book Birthday to… The Testimony by James Smythe!

Thursdays are a special day in UK publishing, as they normally signify pub dates! I thought for a new feature on the blog I would do a ‘Happy Book Birthday’ to a book that I’ve worked on and want to shout about. And to make up for the shameless HC promotion, I promise to share a little insider-anecdote about something to do with the book to make it a bit more interesting 🙂

But actually, I’m going to bend the rules for my first ever Happy Book Birthday, as I didn’t actually work on this specific novel. But I did have the privilege to work on the author’s next book, The Explorer, a brilliant SF novel which is due out in January 2013. But back to the task at hand…

Happy Book Birthday to…

The Testimony by James Smythe

A global thriller presenting an apocalyptic vision of a world on the brink of despair and destruction.

What would you do if the world was brought to a standstill? If you heard deafening static followed by the words ‘MY CHILDREN, DO NOT BE AFRAID’?

Would you turn to God? Declare it an act of terrorism? Subscribe to the conspiracy theories? Or put your faith in science and a rational explanation?

The lives of all twenty-six people in this account are affected by the message. Most because they heard it. Some because they didn’t.

The Testimony – a gripping story of the world brought to its knees and of its people, confused and afraid.

The Testimony is published by Blue Door Books, another imprint of HarperCollins. It’s a rare novel that can combine an ingenious high concept with fast-paced, thrilling action and still somehow remain cerebral, intelligent and well-written at the same time, but somehow James does exactly that. He is definitely an author to watch.

My sneaky-insider anecdote to do with The Testimony takes place during a marketing meeting a few months back. The enigmatic publisher of Blue Door, Patrick Janson-Smith, was concerned about how to get the word out about The Testimony. “I want it to go viral,” he said. “My Children Do Not Be Afraid. If there is ever a tagline that seems destined to ‘go viral’, it’s this.” But how exactly do you go viral. Viral is that word-of-mouth buzz that is so impossible to manufacture by its very nature. One suggestion was to commandeer the tannoy at a busy train station (like Waterloo), and interrupt everyone’s daily commute with the mysterious static and the message: My Children, Do Not Be Afraid. Someone pointed out that we would probably get arrested. “Perfect!” said Patrick.

Unfortunately, in the end, HC just doesn’t let its employees get arrested for the sake of book sales, and so instead a fantastic team effort resulted in this awesome trailer, and I challenge you to not want to read this book after watching it!

And besides, how do you really make something ‘go viral’? By talking about it and wanting to share it with everyone you know, and so that’s why I’m encouraging you to go out and Buy or download The Testimony now!