Book Review: Across The Universe

Across the UniverseI read this after someone posted on Goodreads about it maybe being similar to TLODB. I kind-of felt like I had to read it, but now I have I’m glad I did.

I definitely opened the book with more than a little trepidation and fear that I might have committed a vast but accidental form of plagiarism, but my fears were quickly assuaged. Even though the setting of the book is definitely similar (a spaceship with a population of a couple of thousand on a several hundred years long space mission), the plot, atmosphere, characterization and themes are actually very different.

The Godspeed is on its way to an Earth-like planet in order to set up a colony, and the story is told from the dual perspectives of Amy and Elder. Amy was brought aboard with her scientist parents, cryogenically frozen, but defrosted early in a mysterious mishap. Elder is the leader-in-training of the on-board population, an agrarian civilization under the control of the unpredictable Eldest.

Beth Revis does a great job of world-building; the Godspeed and its civilization and cast of characters very quickly come to life, as do the more sinister aspects of the necessary adjustments that have had to be made over the course of their journey.

One thing I particularly loved was the truly visceral depiction of the cryogenics – both Amy’s freezing, her experience of being frozen and her defrost had the dark quality of a particularly vivid nightmare or horror film, and actually put me in mind of a Stephen King short story I read a long time ago and was too appalled by to ever forget.

While TLODB combines the genres of sci-fi and love story, Across the Universe combines sci-fi with crime, in that there is a case in need of solving at the core of the story. I think this is a combination that works well and makes for a page-turning read. The love story was only a sub-plot at this point but it is definitely being lined up for further development as the series continues. I’m definitely going to have to read the next to find out.

BTW I know I’m pretty late to the party on this one, but I’m sure glad I finally turned up.

A Blog on a Vlog

I was recently asked to make a video for hebban.nl on my thoughts about why sci-fi is popular. Obviously I made a bit of a hash of it. I mean, I’ve never done anything like that before so I ended up recording it about eight hundred times before I could manage to say it all without massive pauses and loads of umming and ahing. It was only later I realised that what I really should have done is just edited those out. Doh. Well, you live and learn. And now I have my own YouTube channel I guess I might as well try my hand at a few more.

Here’s the link in case you want to hear me rambling on and sharing my thoughts about why sci-fi is particularly popular at the moment.

First Contact, Moral Ambiguity and Passion in the Vacuum of Space

LODB 5As John Green once said (I think):  

“Dear authorial intent,

You don’t matter.”

And he’s completely right.  I mean, it ultimately matters very little what I intended when I was writing my book.  What matters far more is what each and every reader picks up on/gets out of it/takes away with them when they read it.  But since this is my blog I thought I’d allow myself a bit of a ramble about what my intentions were with TLODB.  And my alter ego <school librarian> suggested I went even further than that… so I ended up writing this blog post which, now I look at it, pretty much resembles a York Notes/Cliff Notes/Shmoop style study guide to my own book.  So here it is for your delectation.  You’re welcome, readers, you are welcome.  

On my setting…

I work all day and only write at night, so I spend a lot of time alone under starry skies, which I think is why I ended up writing about space.  Added to this, when I started writing TLODB I had just moved to a new country (for the third time in seven years) so there was something in the disassociation of the Ventura experience that I could relate to.  I’m the same age as the Voyager Probe (of golden record fame) so I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of space travel and the quest to make first contact.  This may be why I love science documentaries and podcasts almost as much as I love space movies like the massively underrated Contact, as well as Interstellar, and Gravity, and all-time favourite sci-fi tv show Battlestar Galactica (noughties not seventies).

So there were all these ideas I wanted to explore: are we alone in the universe?  What will we do if we’re not?  How will we overcome the barriers that stop us from being able to travel these massive distances?  Basically I just kept asking myself these questions until I had built the basics of the world I wanted to set my story in – which ended up involving maps, diagrams, even sometimes some advanced (compared to my skill level anyway) maths.  

However I realise now that what came to me first about Ventura was its mood – I wanted it to be grungy, low tech, cold and dark – this is no shiny, white, Apple Inc version of our future.  It had to feel authentic; it had to feel real and visceral.  I wanted my reader to be able to picture themselves there completely.  Ultimately this story is personal and emotional, and only through making this distant and alien setting feel concrete and truthful would it have impact.  The human relationships and struggles had to feel real in this unreal setting.

On my writing style…

When I was just a teenager myself it was angsty, voicey, freeform books like The Catcher in the Rye, On The Road and Less Than Zero that inspired me and made me even more sure that I wanted to write. I found books like that exhilarating to read and just adored how viscerally and vividly their main characters are rendered because the entire book is written as if it was them talking directly to you, in their voice. I have now realised that writing this way does mean being prepared to take risks, and to make sacrifices.  As a writer you have to constantly ask yourself: but would she say that?  Is that a metaphor she would use?  Is that a parallel she would know to make?  And if the answer is no you just can’t use it, even if it would have been beautiful.  Fully committing to rendering a character so faithfully can eventually lead to you bringing them to life in the fullest way, but the side effect of this is that that some of your readers may not appreciate what you’re doing, and may have preferred you to refine and beautify your prose in the more traditional way.  That’s just a risk you either are or aren’t prepared to take, and whether its responded to positively or not is just a matter of taste and not much else.

On my characters…

As a writer I am all about moral ambiguity.  I adamantly did not want Seren to be a chosen one, or the now ubiquitous gun-toting kickass revolutionary.  I wanted her to be flawed, reckless, impulsive, sarcastic, snarky, sad and weak.  But I also wanted her to be brave, loving, passionate, and honest to a fault.  In short, I wanted her to be a REAL person, a real girl.  An ordinary girl who ends up doing extraordinary things, not because she always makes good choices or does the right thing, but because she fails and makes mistakes, but never gives up or stops trying, no matter what difficulties she faces.

Seren struggles with her mental health in a way that’s pretty understandable in her circumstances.  There are SO MANY shades of grey with mental health, so many ways to suffer with it, so many ways to define a struggle.  We’re kind-of all struggling with it to greater and lesser degrees and in any one of a million ways distinct and unique to us.  What I wanted was for us to see that Seren is more sensitive and vulnerable to depression, and to anxiety, and so life on the Ventura is especially hard for her.  But I also wanted it to come across that the thing that makes her weak/dangerous in the eyes of her family/those in power, is actually the very same thing that makes her special.  Like most sensitive people, she sees things differently, she feels things acutely, and this is partly what takes her life in an interesting direction.

I had very specific ideas about how I wanted Dom to be – I wanted him to be a good boyfriend, fully deserving of Seren’s love, but still far from perfect.  I wanted him to seem like the first person Seren has ever fully been understood by and been able to talk to, but also to be a doorway into new realisations for her – a connection to nature and to the ‘real’ life she is unable to experience and longs for so keenly.  This is why I had him work with animals, why he is a musician and also, partly, why I wanted him to be Spanish.  It’s not a culture generally associated with space travel, so having Ventura be of Spanish origin was a leap.  But I live in Spain, and before that I lived in Costa Rica in Latin America.  I am fascinated by the blending of culture and languages that I see, but also I love the Latino/Spanish culture – it’s so warm and relaxed and romantic and free – family and the good things in life are so often the priority.  The idea of evoking this within the restrictions, confines and claustrophobia of the Ventura was interesting – and I thought would lend something extra to Dom.    

I strived to imbibe a certain moral ambiguity into my other characters too – no one of them is entirely good or truly bad – and all are left with the space and ability to surprise us with the choices they make.

On my themes…

I always knew that TLODB was going to be about first love.  What better contrast to the coldness of the regime on Ventura than the pure passion, heat and impulse of first love?  And I always wanted Seren to be a very active participant in this – not to view herself as the prey of a predator the way a lot of female characters in YA do.  I wanted her to be full of desire, to be passionate, to want as much as she is wanted.

But mostly, and unsurprisingly, in my mind TLODB is largely about loneliness.  A lot of teenagers are extremely lonely – I know I was.  It’s a time in your life when you have, necessarily, become somewhat detached from the family you grew up in and yet you are still some years away from forming the one you will create yourself.  And in TLODB this is mirrored in the quest of the Ventura itself – as a race we humans are so lonely, so desperate to know we are not alone, that we are prepared to risk it all to journey out into the unknown in our own hopes of making contact.

Which, in fact, is a little like writing a book.  TLODB is out there and its themes and messages are open to interpretation by those who read it.  I’ve had readers tell me all sorts of things they got from reading the book that I hadn’t realised were there – most recently that TLODB, somewhat ironically, feels like a love letter to the glories of the ever absent and much pined for Earth.  Like a lot of good sci-fi, questions of free will, what makes us human, whether our personalities decide our fate, and even existentialism are all in there too, but it’s up to every individual reader to decide what they find… or don’t.

That’s the joy of sending something out there into the big wide universe to make contact… you never know who you’ll reach, or how.LODB 4

Less Than a Week To Go…

LODB 2Less than seven days until publication day and I am excited/nervous/ecstatic/terrified. Also: a little sleepless, completely distracted and vague, permanently nauseous.  Pretty much just an edgy, cheerful zombie.

Cringe-Fest

OK, so I recently went to London to do some booky type things and it was basically a cringe-fest.  This is entirely my own fault because I’m good at writing but I’m completely rubbish at most other things you care to mention, including (but not limited to):

  1. Meeting people.
  2. Talking to people I don’t know.
  3. Mingling at social events.
  4. Acting like I know what I’m talking about.
  5. Explaining what my book is about.
  6. Thinking of interesting things to say (until much later).
  7. Being photographed/videoed.
  8. Being interviewed.
  9. (And I only just discovered this one recently) Signing books.

So, yeah, I was in London, doing all of the above.  Very badly.  But, you know, I tried.  And the good thing for me is that Hachette have LODB 1a load of people who are far better at most things than I am.  These quote cards for example are basically the BEST THING EVER, so I am going to share them here.  The one here went out into the world to celebrate two weeks until pub date.  More will follow as and when they are released into the wild…

DO NOT TOUCH My Finished Copies

FInished CopiesMy finished copies truly are things of beauty.  This has exactly ZERO to do with me.  It has to do with the incredibly talented folk at Little, Brown and Hachette, particularly amazing jacket designer Sophie Burdess.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to love them and be just a little bit obsessed with how gorgeous they are.  It’s very pleasing that there is such beauty in the physical manifestation of this story, which (in my opinion anyway) is also pretty darn beautiful.

So the only problem now is the fact that I won’t let anybody touch them.  I mean, obviously people can touch their own copies, but they CAN’T TOUCH MINE.  Not even my husband and kids can touch mine.  Especially not them.  They and their greasy fingers are not respectful enough of the sumptuously velvety soft matt finish.

Now and for the foreseeable future, I am to be found standing over my personal finished copies, growling at anyone who dares to come close and muttering like Gollum.

Writing On the Run

I’ve been talking to thirteen and fourteen year olds about writing lately (as you do) and one of the things I found myself going on about was how you don’t need an office to write.  I mean, hell, you don’t even need a desk.  I’m not saying I don’t fantasise about that little “room of my own”, particularly when I’m being hoovered around/yelled at by small people/deafened by Spanish football commentary but I don’t NEED it.  Like NEED it need it.  I mean, I’ve written one and a half books without it.  If you want to write, if you love to write, if you live to write, you will WRITE.  Wherever and whenever.  All you really need is your ideas and your love for the craft.

Oh, and maybe a nice laptop.

And a brain helps.

And some hands (so you can type).

Anyway here are some pictures of me, writing in silly places, which is what I do best.

WOTR Galicia WOTR Asturias WOTR Portugal

TLODB: The Soundtrack

The Loneliness of Distant Beings hits shelves in just six weeks, so I’m celebrating by sharing the playlist I’ve made for it.  Most of these are songs I listened to while writing the book, and I always think that whatever you’re listening to has a massive effect on the atmosphere of what you end up with. Basically it’s the soundtrack to the movie you have playing in your head, the one you’re frantically typing away trying to record and evoke.  And yeah, these are also the kinds of songs that should totally be used when if (oh the hell with it) WHEN the book gets made into a film.

And I mean I reckon it would work pretty well as an accompaniment to reading too.

The Inevitability of Space

I’ve been asked quite a few times now why I decided to write about space and, so, ok, here’s the answer.

I’m not sure really but my best guess is that it has something to do with writing at night.  And also living on the Costa del Sol.  I mean, there’s only so many times you can find yourself outside, at two o’clock in the morning, when (in the summer anyway) it’s still mid-thirties degrees centigrade, and the sky is utterly, completely, epicly cloudless and there is just this like DIAMOND MINE of stars above you before you just succumb.  You succumb and you’re like, OK OK I get it, you want me to think about you, you want me to consider you, you want me to start thinking about why we don’t know more about you yet, and whether we’re alone with all this awesome.

But you know, that’s not all there is to it.  Not entirely.  It’s no coincidence that I’m thirty seven years old – the same age as Star Wars, the same age as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the same age as Voyager 1 and its golden record, now headed out across the space that separates our solar system from its nearest neighbours.  

Looking at it this way it was almost inevitable that it would permeate my consciousness the way it has.  Looking at it this way, the real questions is how could I NOT write about space.

Readings and Existential Crises

asktheauthorWhat happens when a thirteen year old asks you if your novel is Existentialist?  

I mean, like, obviously the first thing that happens is that you wish you could google Existentialism in your mind, because even though you studied it in various forms at university you haven’t had much reason to think about it since then and so its exact (or even vague) meaning briefly (or totally) eludes you.  Then, since you can’t do any invisible googling, you try your best to blag it which, in a school, usually involves batting the question back at the asker, a la “Do YOU think it’s Existentialist?”

To which the general conclusion was yes.  It was only later (once I could google) that I realised he was right, that he had identified something about the book I wrote that I didn’t know myself and that in fact nobody had even mentioned before this point.

This was just one of the things I learned about doing author readings in the week I did my first ever (four of them) to Year 9 and Year 8 students at the school where I am the librarian.  I wonder whether all audiences will be as unexpectedly engaged and receptive as these were, or as varied.  What was really interesting was how each session had its own individual character and focus.  The first was solidly focused on business (for this read money), the second on process, the third on the actual plot and world-building, and the fourth veered between the ethics and development of the publishing industry as well as the broader philosophical implications of what I’ve written.  I know, right?  Not bad for 12-14 year olds, most of whom are working in a second language too.

Another highlight was when a girl asked me whether writing my book had given me any personal epiphanies (her exact words).  Once I got over how impressed I was with her originality and insight, I sat there trying to formulate my answer only to realise (slowly, in stages, like a sunrise) that maybe it had.

So this is what I learned about readings: I learned that because they are so personal they are terrifying (think dry mouth, shakes, cold sweats, mind blanks, everything) but I also learned that they are eye opening.  Hearing myself talk about my book but, more importantly, hearing the perspectives of my audience, made me realise all these things about it I hadn’t before and probably never would have without their input.  So yeah, while it takes a lot of out you to lay it all on the line like that (especially in a place where you work and where everyone knows you and where you have to turn up again the next day), when you weigh it up against what you get back, you definitely come out winning.