World Book Day 2020: Top Ten Non-Fiction

In honour of World Book Day, and having already listed my Top Ten Novels, here are ten of my favourite non-fiction books (with the exception of my own, of course!). These are ten books spanning various genres that stood out from the crowd, providing entertainment, fascination, insight, knowledge and joy.

1. Chariots of the Gods, by Erich Von Daniken (1968)

Filled with wondrous insights about the ancient aliens that created us…oh no, wait. Only joking!

1. A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson (2005)

Writing a scientific history of the world that explains not only what we know but how we know it, and the oftentimes bizarre people who made it possible, and putting it all into one book that is readable for the layperson, seems like an impossible task, but Bryson manages to pull it off with aplomb. From geology to seismology, biology to paleontology, particle physics to relativity, he takes some incredibly complex fields of science and somehow makes them understandable, entertaining and endlessly fascinating. Part science primer, part history and part biography, this book is a must read for anybody curious about the world around them.

2. Heavier Than Heaven: The Biography of Kurt Cobain, by Charles R. Cross (2001)

I’m not normally a fan of celebrity biographies, and having already read several on Kurt Cobain, the tragic frontman of Nirvana who committed suicide in 1994, I didn’t expect this book to be anything more than a casual read. I was happy to be proved wrong. Expertly drawing together details from hundreds of interviews, Cross recreates Cobain so vividly, I felt I could reach out and touch him. Indeed, for someone who died before I even knew who he was, this book brought Cobain back to life, almost as though the narrative was unfolding in real time as we drew on towards the inevitable conclusion. Raw, heartfelt and honest, I’d recommend this to anyone, even if you’re not a fan of Cobain’s music, for the way it manages to penetrate the public persona and reach the real individual beneath.

3. A Voyage for Madmen, by Peter Nichols (2011)

The definitive account of one of the strangest and most gripping stories of man at sea, this is the kind of twist-filled, rip-roaring adventure you’d describe as unbelievable if it wasn’t true. In 1968, nine solo yachtsmen set out to become the first to sail alone and non-stop around the world. And what a strange bunch they were – a philosopher, a failed inventor, a soldier who didn’t know how to sail, in boats that hadn’t been designed for the rigours of the open seas. Of the nine, four pulled out after being battered by the ocean; one after vomiting blood from a peptic ulcer; one sank; one didn’t want to stop sailing so abandoned the race to become one with the ocean; one went mad, wrote a 25,000 word treatise about the human condition, and then killed himself; and only one made it. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe this perfect storm of eccentricities, and this book more than does them justice.

4. The Case For Mars, by Robert Zubrin (1996)

A fascinating proposal for colonizing the Red Planet using existing technology and scientific know-how, this is both a sales pitch and a step-by-step manual to creating a sustainable habitat on Mars. With infectious enthusiasm, Zubrin convincingly shows how to achieve each stage physically, technologically, scientifically, politically and financially. Indeed, from reading this book it becomes clear that we don’t need to wait a hundred years or even fifty – we could start right now. If that doesn’t excite the little child inside you that dreams of walking on alien worlds, then nothing will.

5. Travels With Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck (1962)

Travels With Charley is an absolute gem of a travelogue that has informed so much of how I see the world. While it’s ostensibly about Steinbeck’s trip around the US in a pickup truck when he was sixty, accompanied only by his pet dog Charley, it’s as much about an old man coming to terms with his mortality, revisiting the places he once knew and that are now lost in time. Along the way, we learn what it is to take a journey, why we should refuse to surrender the fire in our bellies, how we can never go home again, and why men should have beards. Atmospheric, lyrical, meditative and philosophical, in trying to pin down what makes Americans so American, Steinbeck reveals far more about what it is to be human.

6. The Stories of English, by David Crystal (2004)

Essentially a history of the English Language, this book is far more readable and entertaining than it has any right to be. Do you know why the land of the Angles and Saxons came to be called England and not Saxonland? That the sea used to be called a seal bath, swan road or whale way, and ships were keels, wave floaters or wave horses? That the Vikings are the reason Keswick and Chiswick are no longer pronounced the same? That as a result of Norman noblemen exploiting Anglo-Saxon peasants, all the names of domesticated animals are English (calves, cows, sheep, pigs) but all the meats are French (veal, beef, mutton, pork)? Whether you’re looking to understand the language or simply want interesting facts to fire at your friends in the pub, The Stories of English is the easiest and most enjoyable way of doing it.

7. Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, by Richard Rhodes (2002)

Despite its slightly misleading title, this harrowing piece of historical study is one of the most important and revealing accounts of the Holocaust I’ve read – and I’ve read a lot. While everyone knows about the death camps, very few know about what came before them, when four ‘special task forces’ of a thousand men each followed the army into Poland and Russia, rounded up Jews, and shot more than one million of them into makeshift graves. Following the organisation, training, development and ideologies of these groups, Rhodes shows how the death camps weren’t created to make the killing more efficient – they were created to make it easier on the executioners, who were suffering depression, alcoholism and suicide as a result of murdering people all day long. A nasty but worthwhile read, Masters of Death shines a light on a gruesome part of history that should never be forgotten.

8. The Dinosaur Hunters, by Deborah Cadbury (2000)

Popular history at its best, The Dinosaur Hunters is a fascinating story of heroes and villains, gifted amateurs exploited by amoral academics, and the battles that raged as the first dinosaur bones were pulled from the earth. It’s the tale of Mary Anning, a poor Dorset spinster who made some of the greatest discoveries of all time but was shut out of the scientific community because she was a woman; of Gideon Mantell, a country doctor who lost his money and his wife trying to prove that the giant bones he collected belonged to prehistoric lizards; and of the obnoxious anatomist Sir Richard Owen, who destroyed Mantell’s reputation before taking credit for many of his discoveries and stealing the honour of naming the dinosaurs. A real page-turner that shows in stark terms how difficult it can sometimes be to separate the vested interests of the scientists from the science itself.

9. The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout (2006)

We tend to think of sociopaths as violent criminals, but did you know that 4% of people are reckoned to have no conscience? In this eye-opening and frankly terrifying book, Stout reveals how 1 in every 25 people walking around in society are only out for themselves, with no instinctive limits on how they treat others, having zero empathy and no remorse whatsoever. Ever made excuses for someone’s behaviour, like they must have forgotten or they must have been under a lot of pressure, because you simply can’t believe any normal human being could do such a thing? Chances are, you’re dealing with a sociopath. Filled with horrifying case studies of the destruction wrought by these people in relationships, families, the workplace and wider society, this book teaches us how to recognise the sociopaths in our lives and how to protect ourselves from them, and for that alone it’s essential reading.

10. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, by Captain Charles Johnson (1724)

If you’ve ever read Treasure Island; played Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag; watched Johnny Depp do his best Keith Richards impression; or told the joke, ‘Why are pirates called pirates? Because they arrrrr’; then this is the book for you. It pretty much created everything we think we know about pirates, from peg legs and buried treasure to eye patches and the Jolly Roger. A collected ‘biography’ of famous pirates, all the big names are here: Blackbeard, William Kidd, Calico Jack Rackham, Bartholomew Roberts, Mary Read, Anne Bonney, Charles Vane, Edward Low, Israel Hands, Stede Bonnet, Sam Bellamy and a whole bunch you’ve probably never heard of. Given that its authorship is still in dispute and there’s no doubt that much of it is exaggerated, if not simply made up, calling this non-fiction is a bit of a stretch, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun nonetheless.

World Book Day 2020: Top Ten Novels

In honour of World Book Day, I thought I’d list ten of my favourite novels (with the exception of my own. Hint, hint, any publishers who are reading this!). These are ten books that got under my skin and left such a deep impression that I was still thinking about them months or even years later – no mean feat when I’ve read around 800 in the last twenty years. While they might not be considered ‘literature’, and are therefore unlikely to grace many Top Ten lists, they show writers at the top of their craft, able to stir, excite, move, challenge and satisfy. What more could you want in a book?

My Top Five (in no particular order):

1. The Death of Grass, by John Christopher (1956)

A horrifyingly real apocalyptic thriller with a uniquely ominous, slow-burn first act as the world edges towards catastrophe. Set in post-war Britain, the story is about a virus that starts in China (where else?) and spreads slowly westwards, killing all grasses – including rice, wheat, oats and barley. With an upcoming election, and in the mistaken belief that science can find a solution, the government opts not to take the necessary but unpopular measures to offset the crisis, so by the time the virus hits, it’s already too late – at least half the population is going to starve.

Escaping from the city shortly before martial law puts it on lockdown, an ordinary man and his family set out towards his brother’s farm – a safe-haven in an easily defensible valley where they’ve been growing potatoes. Following the adage that civilisation is only ever three meals from anarchy, the countryside rapidly descends into a lawless hell of robbery, rape and murder, forcing the travellers to unexpected acts of savagery to survive – but at what cost to their humanity?

What makes this book different from so many others is the sheer believability of both the premise and the characters, showcasing the best and worst of mankind. When I first read it a few years ago, it scared the hell out of me, and with the coronavirus dominating the headlines, it’s as resonant today as it ever was. A word of warning to the easily offended: it isn’t very PC. But then, for a book written in the fifties, why would it be?

2. Changeling, by Matt Wesolowski (2019)

A work of staggering impact that ought to be taught in schools to warn about the dangers of certain types of abuse, Changeling explores six different perspectives on the disappearance of a child in a haunted forest so creepy it has the genuine ability to make your skin crawl. What at first appears to be a modern supernatural chiller slowly reveals itself to be a psychological thriller that is as profound and unsettling as it is insightful and authentic.

And that is the genius of this novel – it deliberately turns everything you think you know on its head. Possibly more than any other novel I’ve read, it gets inside and shakes up your view of the world. The human monster at the heart of the story is far more convincing and everyday than Hannibal Lecter, which makes him/her all the more disturbing. This isn’t the horror of cannibals and serial killers, but of partners and parents, people who live with us and present a civilised front to the world while, out of sight, they destroy us one little bit at a time – tap, tap, tap.

I’m not sure why this book isn’t better known – perhaps because, like its antagonist, it wraps itself in a cloak that disguises what it really is. But this is what makes the book so affecting – by putting us, its readers, in the same position as the novel’s victims, we’re able to experience what this form of abuse is like, and what it feels like, and how truly awful it is. It’s an important book, something that could change how people think about power in relationships, and it deserves to be read more widely. I can’t recommend it enough.

3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler (2013)

I read Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club and didn’t really care for it (the movie is one of my favourite guilty pleasures), so I wasn’t really expecting much. How wrong I was. Oh my gosh, I cried and I cried and I cried. Reading this was like opening up a wound and exposing all that came out to sunlight. I ploughed through it in a day, desperate to get to the end just so the pain would stop.

It’s pretty far from a perfect book – some of the side characters are one-dimensional and the subplots are poorly executed – but the central story, about the relationship between a girl and the sister she grew up with, is brave, and thought-provoking, and devastating, so moving that it makes up for everything else. I can’t say too much about the plot without giving away the twist, but it’s a mix of family drama, mystery, tragedy and coming-of-age story. If you’re sensitive, if you feel things deeply and can’t bear to see another creature suffer, keep the tissues handy because you’re going to need them.

4. HMS Ulysses, by Alistair MacLean (1955)

The only book I’ve read more than three times, this is the definitive account of the horrors of the Arctic Convoys during the Second World War. Following the cruiser of the title as it escorts an assortment of merchant ships towards Russia, battling German planes, surface raiders, U-boats and the elements, the novel is a thrilling, draining, harrowing tour de force of a war story. The characters are so real, they leap off the page; the descriptions of the polar conditions so vivid, you feel the spray turning to ice in the wind; and the tiny details that populate every paragraph, evidently taken from real life (MacLean served in the Royal Navy during World War II), blur the boundaries between fiction and lived experience.

This is one of the few books where every character stands out, living on in the mind for years afterward; where events, seemingly small and insignificant, are so clearly depicted they linger like memories. While it might be fair to say that many of his later novels were somewhat derivative, MacLean’s debut is a storytelling masterclass that has been undeservedly overshadowed by Nicholas Monsarrat’s better-known The Cruel Sea.

5. Furnace, by Muriel Gray (1997)

For a few short years in the 1990s, Muriel Gray was the best thing about the horror genre, a worthy rival to Stephen King. Unfortunately, she only wrote three books, and Furnace, her second, was undoubtedly her best. An homage to MR James’s chilling 1911 short story Casting the Runes and its 1957 film adaptation Night of the Demon, the novel follows a long-distance truck driver as, while crossing rural Virginia, he stumbles into the wrong town at decidedly the wrong time. Cursed with a string of runes written on human skin, he learns he has three days to find out who gave it to him, and give it back without them knowing, or else a demon will manifest and devour him.

Gray takes this simple idea and imbues it with everything you could want from a page-turner. The growing sense of urgency and desperation is beautifully aligned with characters you really care about in a subculture – that of US truckers – that feels authentic and atmospheric. As an author, she had a real talent for pairing character and setting with a kind of creeping terror that didn’t rely on gore or schlocky cliches to scare. Definitely a book to read late at night when the shadows contain secrets.

And the rest of my Top Ten:

6. Deliverance, by James Dickey (1970): A survival horror masterpiece in which four city dwellers go on a weekend canoe trip in rural Georgia and run foul of the locals, Deliverance is a deceptively simple tale that’s still shocking in its uncompromising portrayal of violence and refusal to answer the ambiguous moral questions at its core.

7. The Relic, by Lincoln Child (1995): A Michael Crichton-style techno-thriller that has a pace and gnarliness all its own, this is a tense and exciting story about a mutant monster roaming the basements of the Chicago Museum. Any 450 page novel that can sustain a breathtaking climax over 150 pages without going off the boil is a masterful display of craftsmanship. Just don’t judge it by the atrocious film version.

8. Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield (1998): Depicting the last stand of the 300 Spartans against an army of 100,000 Persians at the pass of Thermopylae in 480BC, this novel is that rare thing: a war story that recreates the brutal realities of killing without any of the usual gloss, and an historical drama that lives in its own time without imposing modern sensibilities onto the narrative. Erudite, literate, vivid and, above all, exciting, it’s a definite must-read.

9. The Lost Fleet: Dauntless, by Jack Campbell (2006): Military science-fiction at its best, the first in a series of books about a fleet of warships cut off, surrounded and stranded in enemy space light-years from home. What makes this stand out from the rest is the realism of fleet tactics in three-dimensional space, taking into account the relativistic effects of time-dilation on manoeuvring. Simply top notch storytelling.

10. Sea of Ghosts, by Alan Campbell (2011): Insanely creative, bizarre, intriguing steampunk fantasy merging science, technology, and psychic powers with monsters, magic and parallel dimensions, this novel is an absolute weird gem. Set in a world where the seas are toxic and slowly rising, poisoning the land, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever read. My only qualms in recommending it is that while this is the first in a series, it was cancelled after two novels, leaving you on a cliffhanger that will likely never be resolved. That said, it’s worth reading just to spend time in Campbell’s unique world.

NB: Now that you’ve read this Top Ten, spare a thought for fiction’s lesser cousin. Non-fiction might not have boy wizards or fifty shades of rubbish, but it has a lot of good. Check out my Top Ten Non-Fiction Books.

Parenting and writing: more similar than you might think

Having had my first book published last month, I can now call myself a writer. Of course, I could have called myself a writer at any point over the past twenty-five years, since that’s how long I’ve been at it, but it always felt a little pretentious, given I have barely made a penny from it. It would be like a postman, upon being asked what he does, saying, ‘I’m a fisherman,’ because at weekends he takes a rod and some maggots to his local river and casts about for fish. While he might want to be known for doing that, it’s not exactly an accurate answer, is it?

And yet, throughout my writing life, I have met no end of people who proudly introduce themselves as writers, authors, novelists, poets and even philosophers, despite never having had anything in print. On top of this, there is a really weird thing that many of the writers I’ve met have in common: none of them actually write.

I’m always amazed by how many people pack up their laptop and go to a busy cafe, park or pub in order to write in a loud, bustling and incredibly public place. I’ve had long conversations with writers about their writing, their ideas, their characters, their themes, the depths of their literary ambitions, and how if only someone took a chance on them, they’d shake up the publishing world – all without ever having written anything. I even had a tutor on a creative writing course I was taking tell me she wanted to write a novel one day. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d already written eight. What’s stopping you?

It seems to me that while many writers love being writers, they don’t particularly like doing writing.

That’s understandable – writing is hard. All the other aspects of the craft – planning, plotting, themes, character biographies, working out the front cover and the blurb, giving imaginary interviews in front of the mirror and picturing your book at the top of the bestseller list – those are the easy parts, the fun parts, the parts you can do with an audience. The hard part is sitting down and actually writing, day after day, week after week, churning out tens of thousands of words, editing, rewriting, reworking. Most of that stuff you can’t do in public – you do it in private, in loneliness, in blood, sweat and tears. The only publicity is the book itself, because nobody is meant to see the struggle that goes into it.

The fact is, writers write. They don’t sit around pontificating about their ‘art’ all day, worrying about which jacket makes them look the most writer-ly, or which is the best place to write where they’ll be seen and acknowledged. They knuckle down and work. They don’t wait for inspiration to hit them. They cram it in whenever and wherever they can. Some days it’s easy, some days it’s hard. Some days you have no idea if you’re doing it right and if you’re wasting your life. But you persevere. You keep going in the faith that you’re on the right path and that tomorrow it’ll all click. You keep going not because you want to, but because you need to, because it’s in you and it’s who you are.

In this way, it’s a lot like being a parent.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the superficial aspects of parenting. You take the little one to a cafe and she sits there all well-behaved and you play a game and she laughs and an old couple comes over and tells you what a great parent you are – I love that stuff. It happens to me quite often, in fact – I can’t go a week without a stranger coming up to me and telling me how awesome I am, which makes me walk around all day with a massive head, going, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the shiznit.’

Trouble is, sitting in a cafe playing with a well-behaved child as you bask in the adoration of the public is not all that different from the writer who sits in the pub and delights in telling people about the books he intends to write when his writing credits to date total zero. You’re wallowing in the glory of being a parent, without actually doing any parenting. Because parenting, like writing, can be bloody difficult.

A good parent, just like the good writer, does most of their work unseen. They do it day in, day out, and all through the night, despite the aching spine, the headaches and the tiredness. They face the monotony, the boredom and the isolation with stoic fortitude. They work, work, work, because they have no choice but to do so. They get pushed to the edge but keep their cool somehow; cuddle a kicking, screaming toddler at two in the morning when all they want to do is stay in bed; and endure the torture of a hundred mealtimes in a row that involve more tears and thrown food than spoonfuls successfully swallowed.

Sometimes they’re driven to tears themselves. Sometimes it seems utterly hopeless, and they don’t know how they can possibly get through it all. Sometimes nothing seems to work. But they still get up and do it, because it’s the only thing they can do.

The mark of a good parent is not measured by being good when everything is going well – it’s how you do when your precocious twenty-two month old is driving you up the wall by testing you, pressuring you, challenging you, from dawn to dusk each day and then again from dusk till dawn. It’s measured by what you do when you’re in a cafe and your little one is screaming bloody murder, by how you react when they’re not behaving themselves, by whether you can remain calm when everyone’s looking at you and judging you for the behaviour of your child.

Nobody sees the work that goes into a book, just as nobody sees the work that goes into a child. By the time it is ready to be released into the world, you have poured far more of your heart into it than you even thought you had in you to give. But when all is said and done, you’re only assessed on the finished product, not the work that went into creating it. So you just have to press on in the faith that one day it’ll all come good. And then maybe your kid will write that bestseller that eluded you so long!

Aspie Family Update, Pt 2

The continuing update into my nineteen-month old daughter’s past couple of months, in which she has developed from a cute, precocious, intelligent and outgoing little girl into a cute, precocious, intelligent and outgoing little girl who throws a tantrum if she doesn’t get what she wants.

Telephones

Izzie has loved telephones for a long time, but in the past couple of months her proficiency has developed tenfold. Before, she would grab her mummy’s phone and after entering the wrong code several times, lock it for the next five minutes; now she presses the button on the side, thus opening the camera app, and uses that to get to the photographs, bypassing the code altogether. Once there, she swipes through the various pictures, lingering on those of herself (she has developed a considerable amount of vanity too), and if it’s a video, she taps it with her finger to make it play.

It’s true what they say – the younger generations really do find it easier to understand technology. I mean, she’s pre-verbal, can’t read or speak beyond monosyllabic grunts, but she can navigate a mobile phone using the touch screen. Makes me feel really stupid that I can barely check the time on my phone without accidentally sending a text message!

The trouble comes when Izzie gets hold of the house mobile. She loves pushing the buttons, holding it up to her ear, and saying, ‘Ay-oh? Ay-oh?’ She loves snatching it off you when you’re in the middle of a conversation, then chattering away to whoever’s on the other end in Izzie-ese, before saying, ‘Bye-bye,’ and disconnecting. And in particular, she loves playing with it when you’re not about.

The first time I heard it dialling out, I grabbed it off her and hung up. The second time, a few days later, I heard a voice saying, ‘That number has not been recognised.’ We’ve been very careful since then, so I have no idea how she got the phone a few days ago. I heard a voice, quiet, distant, just on the edge of my perception, saying, ‘What is the nature of your emergency?’

I used to be an emergency call operator, and of the ninety calls I took a day, at least two were from toddlers playing with phones (or occasionally people dusting them). When I worked for the police, I used to call back and give the parents a bollocking; now that I’m one of those parents, I’m so glad the 999 call taker accepted my apology and let me simply hang up.

I’m not looking forward to our next phone bill, however.

Imaginative Play

A couple of months ago Izzie would imitate our behaviours without really understanding the why’s and wherefore’s of what she was doing. Now, instead of simply imitating us, she actively plays with things using her imagination. It might not sound like a lot, but it’s a massive leap forward.

Like her dolls, for example. I never thought I’d be the father of a child who plays with dolls. Not because I didn’t want to perpetuate patriarchal gender roles, but because it never really factored into my thinking. Keyboard, teddy bear, colouring book, toy car – that’s my thinking when it comes to entertaining kids, whatever their sex.

My wife Lizzie, on the other hand, is very much into buying Izzie play kitchens, plastic food, shopping trolleys, push chairs and, since November, dolls. Big dolls, little dolls, skinny dolls, fat dolls – we now live in a doll’s house. And other than being freaky and creepy as hell, it’s rather illuminating.

When we first gave her a doll, Izzie stuck her fingers in its eyes, trying to peel off the veneer, and flung it about like any other plaything. But within a couple of weeks, she started caring for it. She gets out the changing mat, finds a nappy and tries to change it; she brushes its (non-existant) hair; she tries to feed it and give it water; and she cuddles it.

The most important thing about this is that she knows the doll isn’t real, but she pretends it is real. Instead of simple imitation, she is playing, experimenting, using her imagination to have fun. I know this because she picks up imaginary food in her fingertips, feeds it to the doll, feeds it to herself, feeds it to her mother and me, and giggles every time we pretend it’s real.

She has recently acquired a number of Barbie dolls and greatly enjoys sitting them on the sofa to watch TV, changing their outfits, kissing them, and then making them kiss each other. Much as I dislike dolls, we may be introducing a Ken to the party…

Organising and Locating

Speaking of kissing, Izzie has become very bossy when it comes to how she wants things. If I kiss her goodbye, she points at me and then at mummy, and nods her head as if to say, ‘Now you kiss mummy.’ Once I’ve kissed mummy, Izzie then puckers her lips at mummy, and as soon as her mother has kissed her, she points at mummy and then at me, and nods her head to say, ‘Now mummy, you kiss daddy.’ I’ll tell you, all this goodbye kissing is exhausting!

But the pointing and demanding is not limited to that, oh no. Every meal time, she likes to stipulate where we all sit. She looks at mummy then points to a chair, and once mummy sits, she looks at me and points to another chair. If we don’t sit in the chair she’s specified or, God forbid, we muck about and I sit in mummy’s chair while she sits in mine, then Izzie lets us know just how cross we make her.

Every morning after I’ve changed her nappy she opens a drawer and picks out the vest and tights she wants to wear, and if I dress her in those she then opens the wardrobe and chooses a dress. After which she heads to the mirror and checks herself out, smoothes her hair (vanity), and generally giggles at how good she looks. To be fair, she does have a keen eye for an outfit, but I do sometimes have to step in at some of the hideous combinations. Peppa Pig leggings don’t go with just anything, you know!

This particularity extends to where she wants things. This book? She wants it here. That teddy bear? Put it there. No, not there: an inch to the left. No, your other left. Oh, give it here, I’ll put it where it’s meant to go. There. Or maybe there. You know what? It looked better where you put it first time.

Books

And lastly, she has fallen in love with books. So much so, in fact, that when she goes to bed,  instead of cuddly toys she picks out a couple of books to sleep with. She can’t actually read them, but she likes the pictures, I guess.

This actually serves a double benefit. It means most nights she goes down without a fuss. I place her on her back in the cot and she opens her book and is happy as you like. I tell her goodnight and she pretty much waves me away as if to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, goodnight, dad, shut up, I’m reading.’ And if she wakes early, then she entertains herself with her books instead of getting us up. It’s a win-win.

Except if I have to read ‘Maisy’s Bus’ one more time, I’m going to feed Maisy Mouse to Charley Crocodile, and then who’ll drive? Cyril Squirrel? Not bloody likely!

Failure and success in writing

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that the frequency of posts has dropped off lately. For this I must apologise and explain.

In my core I am a writer. Ever since I was a child, four or five years old, I’ve wanted to be a writer. I always said I’d write a book one day, and then when I was eight I wondered what the hell I was waiting for and started. The result was Mystery of the Samurai Kidnapper. Needless to say, it sucked, but I was hooked.

I wrote all kinds of stories and read everything I could – action, adventure, crime, horror, science-fiction, war. When I was sixteen I began writing seriously, and at eighteen started sending samples to magazines and agents and publishers.

Skip forward eighteen years and I’ve written nine books, several scripts and dozens of short stories – over two million words of creative writing. I’ve come close a few times – I had a call from Ian McEwan’s agent once to discuss my novel The Butterfly Collection, and nearly nabbed an agent from Blake Friedmann for Beyond Wild, only to fall at the final hurdle – but other than a few short stories, I’ve been remarkably unsuccessful at getting into print. It goes with the territory.

But earlier this year I felt I was on a roll. I entered twelve writing competitions. Normally I just take a punt, but these were twelve of the best best things I’ve ever written – I actually thought that this time I had a shot.

Some were for short stories, some for the first 5000 or 10,000 words of a novel. I worked like a dog, polished them to perfection, then waited with bated breath. I hoped to win, but I knew I’d be happy just to be short-listed in one of them. It would make all the years of sacrifice worthwhile.

Over the past few months, the competition results trickled in, one at a time. And with each one, my hope and joy gave way to bitter disappointment. I didn’t win any. I wasn’t short-listed for any. I wasn’t even long-listed for any. It might sound like sour grapes, but that last rejection in early July crushed me.

Rejection is part of being a writer, and you have to be resilient. To put it into perspective, JK Rowling recently spoke of her pain at having Harry Potter rejected twelve times. When that last competition declared, it brought my rejection count up to 327.

As a father, I have to act happy for my child. I have to make out like everything’s fine and dandy and be the same as I always am. So I did. But inside, I was broken. It took all my focus and energy to hide it. The last thing I wanted to do was write this blog.

So I sat, and I festered, and I wondered if I would ever bother to write again.

But, to quote a cliche, it is always darkest before the dawn.

I’ve been awarded a publishing contract! It’s for a book I’ve written on living with autism, provisionally entitled An Adult With Asperger’s: A Guide for the Newly-Diagnosed. It’s being published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and will be coming out in the spring, and so I’m working around the clock to get the final draft ready in time.

As you can imagine, my mood and my self-esteem have both improved no end. I’ll try to keep posting every week on this blog as normal and I’ll keep you posted on the book as more details emerge.

I guess the moral of this story is: never give up, because you never know what’s around the next corner.

Thanks for reading,

Gillan Drew, author (yay!).