Emotionally abusive relationships in fiction

I’ve been watching the whole thing about #AskELJames with interest. I haven’t read 50 Shades. I read the first chapter and decided it wasn’t for me. So I can’t comment on the books. What interests me is the discussion about abusive relationships that it’s raised (again).

As I mentioned, I haven’t read 50 shades. But I have read Twilight, and I find the relationship between Bella and Edward very disturbing indeed. Firstly, Bella talks the talk about wanting to be independent and not get married etc, but really, all she wants is to be Edward’s – mind, body and soul. Even when he points out the bit about losing her soul, she doesn’t care. She wants to be his. So much so that, when he leaves her to re enact the plot from Romeo and Juliet, she crumbles and may as well be dead. So the message is – girl, without your man, you are nothing. Nothing, I tell you. Best throw yourself off a cliff just to get a glimpse of him in case your neurones fire images of him at you while they die.

Then there’s the controlling behaviour. It is not okay to separate her from her friends, to tell her where she can go, what she can do. It’s not protective, it’s overbearing. And that thing about him breaking into her room to watch her sleep? Ewwww. NOT okay. I don’t care if he sparkles in daylight.

Fifty Shades is clearly an erotic fantasy aimed at the adult reader. Twilight is aimed at young girls. There’s no sex in it (not until they get married and nothing graphic even then), but that doesn’t mean it’s suitable reading. As a love story, it’s good fun. I’m adult enough to realise that Bella isn’t a role model and Edward is a made up character. It didn’t rock my world, but I can see how it could appeal to women my age because it reminds us of something we longed for when we were in our teens. But I’ve spoken to very young teenagers who are so totally into it that they see it as a reflection of something real. They want to be Bella and have their Edward, even if he does try to command every aspect of her life. They don’t see that ‘it’s only because he loves me’ is a dangerous excuse.

One of the things I tried to understand when I wrote Doctor January is why an otherwise normal, well-adjusted young woman would allow herself to be bullied by a man who is supposed to love her and why, when she’d escaped from him once, she would keep going back to him, again and again. Writing Beth was hard because I mostly wanted to shake her and shout ‘get out, get out’. It was difficult to show that she wasn’t someone who went around with ‘victim’ stamped on her forehead. Luckily for me, Hibs was already in love with her and saw her strengths. Thank goodness for Hibs, in so many ways. (He’s also very cute and I might fancy him just a little bit – and yes, I DO know he’s fictional, which just makes it better because he won’t leave his dirty socks lying around or anything unsavoury like that).

Can we, as readers, separate fiction from real life? Do teenagers use people from books as role models? What do you think?

Clean Reader – why censoring adult books doesn’t really protect children

I was only vaguely aware of Clean Reader until I heard Joanne Harris talking about it on Radio 4. Whilst I generally like the idea of making my books accessible to people  who wouldn’t normally read them, I object to this app – partly on the grounds that I don’t want someone changing the words of my books (no ‘you can opt out’ isn’t consent), but also on the grounds that it’s such a misguided idea.


I’m not a stranger to the idea of protecting kids from unwanted influences. I grew up in middle class Sri Lankan society in the 1980s. Conservative? You betcha. For a while there was no kissing allowed on Sri Lankan TV screens. People moved in for the kiss and then Blip – it was over. There must have been kids who thought that white people kissing (we got a lot of old UK, US and Australian stuff) was some sort of time warp generator. Sex scenes got cut out entirely or you got a short burst of static. I went to an all girls’ school. I wasn’t allowed to read any Sweet Dreams or Sweet Valley High books in case I got ‘ideas’. It was all culturally normal and it was massively pointless. You can’t get away from love stories. Getting ‘ideas’ is what teenagers are programmed to do!

Besides, even if you cleaned up the rude language in books, would you really be protecting kids from anything? I gather that words for any genitalia are replaced with the word ‘bottom’. One of my books (Dr January) contains a date rape scene. Apart from the word ‘nipple’ and maybe the word ‘body’ the app wouldn’t replace any words, so it’s relatively ‘clean’. It’s still a rape scene. It’s horrible and upsetting. It’s meant to be.  Replacing words would have protected no one.

Say the app removed the scene entirely. The ambiguity of date rape is a key plot point. If the reader can’t ‘see’ the scene and feel Beth’s confusion, then Beth goes from being a woman finally acknowledging that she’s in an abusive relationship, to either being a willing victim or plain hysterical – either of which could be actively damaging to a kid who didn’t realise that date rape was a real thing. Without that ambiguity, you’re left with ‘no bruises, no crime’.

If everyone played by the same rules, the world would be a lovely place, but they don’t. Pretending that sex doesn’t happen outside of marriage, or that people who would take advantage of the innocent don’t exist does NOT protect people. It merely makes it harder for vulnerable people to talk about what is being done to them because, if someone manages to get them into bed, to do stuff they’re not entirely sure ‘counts’, then it must all be their fault, right? So, how can they ask for help?

How on earth does that protect anyone?

Sex education is important. It won’t give kids ideas and urges that they wouldn’t have had anyway. But it does prepare them for it. Books are like dreams. They let you practise emotions so that if you have to deal with them for real, you have some idea what’s going on.

If you don’t like rude books, that’s fine. Don’t read them. If you’re worried about your kids reading books they’re not ready for, talk to them about it. Please don’t mess about with books written with care, certainly not without asking the author first.

Torso Thursdays – taking the mickey

Torso Thursday

A few weeks ago, @smaddenlife and I got into a row argument discussion about the recent trend towards pictures of naked male torsos on posters, book covers, Facebook posts etc.

My view is that it’s all gratuitous and unnecessary. If it’s unacceptable for a nude female torso to be displayed like that, then it should be unacceptable for a male torso too. No need to point out about women having breasts. I’ve spotted that one. The taboo of displaying breasts is a social one (there are societies – like the Pacific island of Yap – where wearing a top is optional and you honestly do stop noticing the boobs after a while).  So, if society demands that ogling Angeline Jolie’s naked chest is wrong (as they should), then ogling Hugh Jackman’s should be wrong too.

Her view (this is still @smaddenlife, in case I’ve lost you with Hugh Jackman… or indeed, Ms Jolie) is that women have been ogled for so long, it’s the men’s turn now.

Given that two wrongs don’t make a right, we eventually arrived at the conclusion that, if this displaying of naked torsos was to be a mark of equality, we should see all kinds of semi-naked torsos. So we decided that we would start a two woman campaign (which sounds better than ‘start mucking around on Twitter playing silly beggars’ – which is what it is really) and call it #TorsoThursday. This is not to be confused with #TorsoTuesday which is about topless men, or that weird lads thing on saturday,which is about topless women. [The other option would have been #ToplessThingies, but we felt that might attract pictures of unwelcome thingies, so #TorsoThursday it is.]


Torso Thursday – give it your chest shot.

Anyone else fancy joining in? Go photograph something with a torso. A cat, an ant, a pelican crossing with arms… the choice is endless. If you need to photoedit a pair of eyes onto it show us which way is up, that’s okay too.

Post a picture of any non-human torso with the hashtag #torsothursday. It had to be recognisably not human – so a close up of the painting Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies would not count because it could be mistaken for picture a real human. Statues are allowed.

Not long until Thursday. I’d better get snapping.

Engineering – Not just for boys

Someone at work showed me this ad today. I think it’s fantastic! The toys (Goldi blox) aren’t available in the UK at the moment, but I’m sure they’ll get across here soon. When they do, I intend to buy my daughter some of these. When she gets tired of them, I can play with them!

I’m not overly bothered about pink, but I do object to things been classified as ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’. I played with dolls (Sindy – nice, Barbies – always the baddie and Jem – just awesome). I also played with He-Man toys, Lego and Meccano I used to LOVE Meccano. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong toys. Just so long as you don’t tell your kids they can’t play with one sort or another.

My friend’s son wanted a pram for his 3rd birthday. When told it was a ‘girl’s toy’, he said, “But Why? Daddy pushes one”. Quite right too.

I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett, so imagine my annoyance when he said “I’ve always thought that my fans were all geeks and scientists, but when I went to my book signings, there were a lot of attractive young ladies there.”

It didn’t seem to have occurred to him that there might be an overlap between the two groups.  This is the man who wrote Equal Rites. I wouldn’t call him particularly sexist. It was a comment that came out naturally. Which tells you something about how pervasive these views are.

So go on girls. Build stuff, knock stuff down. Take things apart. It’s fun. (Please tidy up when you’ve done though, or mummy gets very annoyed and goes all shouty).

Okay. I’m off to have a sneaky play with my daughter’s Hex bug nano set while she’s asleep. Shhh…

News: Two good excuses to eat chocolate

Today’s book trade announcements carried this announcement from Choc Lit http://www.booktrade.info/index.php/showarticle/48820/

Which means that I am now officially contracted to Choc Lit. So are Laura James and Alison May – both of whom are friends of mine from the RNA.  Hooray for all three of us!

Now, I’ve been published before, obviously, but this super duper exciting for me because my next book, Dr January, will be coming out in paperback. An actual PAPER book. Now at last my mum will be able to have a copy to keep on her shelf! There will be ebooks too, worry ye not. Dr January should be out around October 2014.

I’ve never made it into the book trade announcements before. I’m really very pleased.

I’m off to jump around excitedly for a bit and maybe treat myself to a hot chocolate. It helps keep dementia at bay you know. We should all have more hot chocolate. For medicinal purposes, of course.

Film review – Star Trek: Into Darkness

There’s no Inheritance Books this week, because it went out on Friday, so I thought I’d do one of my random film reviews. There are spoilers, so if you’ve not seen the film, turn away now.

I watched Star Trek as a kid. I’m not a Trekker. I say this not because I want to distance myself from the misfit/geek aspects of it (I’ll happily admit to both), but because I’m not dedicated enough to be a fan. I’ve only seen the original series, although I’ve seen enough of the Next Generation to know who everyone is and the last time I watched The Wrath of Khan so long ago that I’ve forgotten the subtleties in it. Also I haven’t seen the first New Star Trek. So I watched Star Trek: Into Darkness as a standalone movie.

So, not a proper fan.  Got that? Okay.

It annoys me when I watch a film that leans on the knowledge of its predecessors to make sense. Like Serenity, which is a bit ‘meh’ if you haven’t seen Firefly, this movie really needs you to have seen the first new Star Trek movie AND The Wrath of Khan. Without them, it feels thin and confusing.

First of all, though, Spock and Uhura? Seriously? That’s just plain weird. Spock is a man of logic. The whole attraction of Spock is the fact that he has such a tight rein on his emotions. He’s not supposed to go around snogging people unless he’s been affected by alien spores or something. Just…no. Okay? NO.

Then there’s the random and pointless scene where Kirk sees Carol Murphy in her underwear. I’m sure it’s a nice treat for those who appreciate the female form in underpants and it’s a nod to the future, but it doesn’t serve any purpose in this particular plot.

And Spock prime (alternate timelines are a massive cop out anyway. Look what they did to Dr Who!). Again, a nice nod to another movie and a treat for the fans, but was it necessary for Spock to speak to Spock prime? He didn’t tell him anything useful. The great sacrifice presumably referred to what happened in The Wrath of Khan. Not much use here.

The darkest moment, where Kirk is irradiated was very good. Again, a nice nod to Wrath of Khan. But the seemingly miraculous bit with the funny dead badger thing was a tad predictable (although, that sort of thing does happen a lot in the original series). If you want to see this plot device done well, read Artemis Fowl.

There was no explanation as to why Khan was frozen. Yeah, yeah, he has to survive to come back later, but just a line to say ‘he was too powerful, we don’t know how to kill him’ or ‘we’re saving him in case we need his brain later’ would have solved the problem. Benedict Cumberbatch was a splendid Khan, by the way. Very… controlled.

I thought the younger versions of the crew looked a lot like the original crew. I was specially delighted to see Mr Chekov was just as cute and adorable as the original (I had a soft spot for him, can you tell?). But that rapport between them, especially the triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and Bones wasn’t there. Yes, they’re new to working with each other and some of the dialogue tried to show this, but the chemistry just. wasn’t. there.

So, there you have it. As part of series, Star Trek: Into Darkness works well. But as a stand alone movie it’s unsatisfactory and illogical.

Why an unpublished author needs an online presence

Do you need an online presence if you’re an unpublished author? Yes. Oh yes. Here’s why.

Social media wordle


4 reasons to start engaging with social media before you’re published:

  1. These days writers have to do their own marketing. An agent/publisher who likes your writing is likely to Google your name, just to see what presence you have online.
  2. You never know who might be listening/reading. If an agent/publisher has heard your name mentioned on social media, they might give your submission a little bit of extra attention.
  3. Readers are hard to find. If you can interact with a particular group as a fellow reader, they will have already hear of you when you make the move from reader to writer.
  4. If you make friends with other writers, you’ll probably pick up tips and bits of useful gossip. At the very least, you’ll see pictures of some nice shoes.

It’s a good idea to have a vague plan. I didn’t have a plan (or a clue?) when I started and I wish I had. My engagement with social media goes something like : Check Email every hour or so, check FB once a day. Sometimes go on Twitter (and inevitably get sucked in by something and waste time). Fail to do any writing. Eat chocolate. Feel fat. This is not a good plan. A better plan would be:

4 step action plan to start out with social media:

  1.  Get a gmail address for all your non personal stuff. (I love Gmail. Google Docs is awesome).
  2. Join one or two forums on Goodreads. Post on there often. Get to know people. Review books that you read.
  3. Set up a website with blog (see here for instructions). You don’t have to update the blog much until you feel you have something to say. You can get your Goodreads reviews to automatically post to the blog so that it gets populated without you having to do much.
  4. Start commenting on other people’s blogs in your genre. If you have to login to post comments, use your website as the login account so that people can track back to your site if they like what you say.

This way you only need to update Goodreads and/or comment on some blogs for a few days and eventually things will add up. 20 minutes each day (or most days), do one thing per day. Only do it at the end of your writing time or you’ll end up wasting all evening. Don’t be scared. You just have to dive in and hope for the best.   Are you terrified of social media? Or have you taken the plunge? How do you do it? Let me know in the comments.

Film review: Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman

I haven’t written a movie review since I was at student and wrote reviews for @DailyInfoOxford. In a rare trip to the cinema, I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman last week. It bothered me so much that I thought I’d write something up. So, anyway, my take on the film was… basically… Huh?

Visually, the film in stunning. The special effects are wonderful. Kristen Stewart (the pallid girl from Twilight) does a good job of being a pallid princess. Charlize Theron is AMAZING  – scary, evil, power hungry, beautiful,  what more could you ask for in a wicked queen? Her sidekick/brother is suitably creepy too. The men are hunky. The fairies are cute. The Dwarves are gruff and ribald. All good. The problem is the story.

First of all, they changed the story of Snow White a bit. Fair enough. I’m happy to take it as a new twist on an old tale.

William, Snow White’s childhood friend, is guilt ridden for abandoning her as a child. When he finds out that she’s still alive he sets out to find her. When the wicked queen tricks Snow White into eating the apple and tells her that love is her undoing, it is William she uses as bait. For the first part of the film he is, apparently, the romantic hero.

The huntsman is your traditional gruff bloke who softens to the heroine. He’s about twice her age and still grieving his dead wife. Here we have another type of romantic hero.

So which one is the one she’s supposed to fall in love with? Clearly, William loves her, but she doesn’t love him. So, it must be the Huntsman. It’s his kiss that brings her alive again. But he’s still in love with his wife. So… what happened there? [Oh, and she can’t smile until he’s given her a nod to say ‘well done’ – a bit like the farmer in Babe saying ‘that’ll do Pig, that’ll do’].

Then there are little things that niggle, like the village full of women and girls. The men are all away fighting. If that’s the case, where did the babies come from? And what did they do with the boy children?

Why did the troll skulk away from Snow White instead of eating her? If Sanctuary is a safe place how did the baddies get in there? How did Snow White regenerate the Queen’s victims? Did she take on some of the Queen’s powers? If she had these powers, how come she didn’t use them before to help her mates?

All in all, it’s a beautifully shot film. I wish they’d paid as much attention to tying up the storylines.

Women of Science

Copyright Jorge Cham

I don’t have a title for my latest book yet, but I know it’s about a woman who is doing a science PhD and wondering whether or not to stay. It was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend about why women leave science.

Every year there are hundreds of women with PhDs who hang up their lab coats and go do something else. It could be something science related (science teachers, lab technicians, that sort of thing) or something totally unrelated – there a lot of accountants and actuaries and lawyers who have science degrees or PhDs.

There are a lot of reasons why women leave science. It’s hard to fit it in with raising a family for a start. A lot of places now have flexible working hours, part time working etc etc etc. But it doesn’t change the fact that you’re expected to do the equivalent of a full time job in the hours you have. If not (or even if you do manage it) you’ll be treated as someone for whom work is hobby. Besides all that, what happens to your experiment if you have to suddenly disappear to pick up a sick child? You’d have to repeat the whole thing when you get back, or ask someone to look after it for you. For women who care about their career, that sucks.

I left science well before I had children. What made me leave? I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m not sure I know, even now. I could say it’s a man’s world. But my PhD supervisor was female and she was very very good.

One thing I noticed is the difference in the level of confidence between men and women. The guys would stand up with results that they weren’t 100% confident in and talk as though it was conclusive. They believed in themselves enough that when challenged, they would face the challenger down and confidently predict what was going to happen. Me, if someone challenged by work, my first reaction was to doubt myself. HAD I made a mistake in my calculations? HAD I misread something? I would always falter in my responses. Invariably, when I went back and checked, I was right all along. But by then, it’s too late. I’ve already shown weakness. Somehow that diminished my integrity as a scientist.

So much of what happens in scientific circles is down to ego. What my friend calls ‘Willie waggling’ (which would be, by definition, something men are better suited to…). What you’re saying seemed less important than who was saying it and how confidently they said it.. I’ve worked in industry and it happens there too, but not as often.

So, there you have it, my reason for leaving science was a lack of confidence in my abilities. And I think I’m fairly easily bored (useful for a writer, not so much for a scientist). If you left science after a PhD (be you male or female!), what was your reason for leaving?

In praise of librarians

Books 7 by Brenda Starr

Information overload. (Photo by Brenda Starr)

Another day, another article about how librarians are becoming extinct. I wonder if that’s really true. Libraries, yes.  But librarians? Really?

I used to know a trainee librarian. We used to joke that she had to spend an hour a day practising saying “Shhh” and glaring at people over her glasses.  I suspect that’s what a lot of people think librarians do. Not true. They do a lot more than that.

Information has value and librarians are good with information. If you want to know anything about anything, your first port of call (after wikipedia), should be a librarian. They won’t know the answer immediately (well, they might, I suppose, depending on the question), but they will know where to find the information. If it’s something particularly tricky to find – they will at least know who has the tools to dig it up.

When I needed to know which worming pills were used in the 1960s (my life is so glamourous), I phoned up the science desk at the British Library  and spoke to a librarian who found me the right journals to look in. There are librarians who specialise in local history, those who specialise in medicine, those who specialise in chemistry, in engineering, politics, digital archiving, patents, you name it. They can search databases, rummage through archives, find contacts for experts, source copies of rare documents. If that weren’t enough, they can recommend an author that writes like that author you already like.

I suggest that librarians are not going to go extinct. In an age where there is more and more (and more) information available, we need people with the skills to sift the nuggets from the noise. Librarians will probably need to rebrand themselves. They will be managers of information, searchers for fact. I’ve put some time into coming up with more fun names and my favourite so far is Information Ninja. Discrete, silent and (mostly) dead on target.