Hack’s hacks for real life interviews

In 1998 I did my first interview for a women’s weekly – I nervously flew up to Scotland to interview a dominatrix who was upset because other mums were blanking her at the school gate. She was lovely – she made me a cheese sandwich and gave me a blue crystal “which aids communication” before explaining how she divided her time between school runs and dribbling hot wax on men’s chests. As first interviews go it could have been far, far worse.

image of a blue crystal

The actual crystal – not sure if it has aided communication but I’m quite attached to it.

Since then I’ve done too many real life interviews to count – I’ve spoken to Elvis impersonators, shagging DJs, lifesaving surgeons, campaigning mums and survivors of domestic abuse. And before each one I’m still nervous. Because until you pick up the phone you have no idea what sort of person you’ll be speaking to. However experienced an interviewer you are, each individual is unknown territory.

And then it’s up to me – the interviewer – to tread the path between what the editor wants, what the interviewee thinks their story is and the truth of the story itself. Get it right and everyone will be happy. Getting it wrong is unthinkable.

Over the years I’ve come up with a few rules to cling to as I head into this wild, wild west situation, so here’s a rough guide from a true life hack…

Get chatting

What makes a story come to life is the characters in it – how did they spend Saturday nights? What’s their favourite takeaway? What makes them laugh? Those are the details which, if cleverly woven in, make a person seem more real, gets the reader rooting for them. So before you jump into the narrative – the when, where how of what happened, take some time to ask about the people involved and what they are like.

Carry the details through

As you gather these details, squirrel them away in your mind and bring them up again later. One young woman I interviewed used to love watching The 100 with her father. Later, when she was struggling to talk about how it felt after he passed away I had some tangible questions to ask her. What was it like watching the show without him? How did it feel to hear his favourite song, watch his football team win? These sound like cruel questions but people respond well to them – it’s difficult to express grief but this gives them a framework for doing it and prompts new stories to come into their minds. That kind of detail also makes it feel more real for the readers without having to resort to cliches.

Avoid talking about yourself

Except in the rarest of cases, this kills the conversation stone dead – especially with celebrities. It’s fine to say something like “oh yes, I’ve got two kids as well, they can be a right handful, can’t they?” But once you start regaling them with tales of Little Johnny’s behavioural issues it changes the dynamic of the chat and leaves the interviewee floundering.

Sweat the small stuff

When people are describing something you can both get swept away on the narrative, then when you go to write it up you realise you’re missing a vital detail. “Then he threw a knife at me,” she says. You’re so shocked and sympathetic that you forget to ask where he got the knife from, whether it was a big scary carving knife or a butter knife, where it landed. Sometimes you have to break the flow to ask this crappy, horrible, unpleasant stuff. If you can’t break the flow, write a note to yourself to ask about it later in the conversation. No, it’s not nice but if you’re going to write a true reflection of what happened you have to know where things are.

Dates, dates dates.

The same goes for when things happen. Before you write a feature create a timeline of events and fill it in as you go – then refer back to it when you’re writing.

Check spellings

I shouldn’t even have to mention this, but I will. There are about eight different ways to spell Tracy.

journalist notepad scrawled with notes

If this was a proper blog, this would be a beautiful handmade notepad with a unicorn pen.

Check your voice recorder. Then check it again.

Once my voice recorder ran out of battery half way through an interview with Julie Walters. It was one of the most mortifying moments of my life – to the extent that I’m ashamed to even admit it here, years later. Sure, I have shorthand but I find my notes don’t capture the nuance of the conversation as well, and it’s a bitch to decipher. The PR had to record the rest of the on her iPhone and email it over to me – I was so embarrassed I never told anyone in the office what happened. Since then before every interview I’ve checked the battery life and available memory on my trusty Olympus.

Get some playback software

Words cannot express how much I hate transcribing, speech-to-text software is hilariously bad and most commissions don’t pay well enough to pay a transcriber. So recently I downloaded some playback software to my computer. It’s not perfect but it allows you to slow down, speed up and play back small sections over and over until you’ve figured out what that vital mumbled word actually was.

Respect your interviewee

This person might have done things you would never consider doing in a million years. He or she might live a life you disapprove of or disagree with or just don’t get. None of that matters. It’s up to you to get into their heads and understand why they got that tattoo of Donald Trump on their face. In my day-to-day life almost everyone I meet in real life looks like me, thinks like me and often agrees with me so it’s good to see things from a different point of view and get the chance to meet some amazing people I’d never otherwise talk to. And I get paid for it too! Result.

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Why anyone who publishes a book is amazing

It’s easy to slag books off. I do it all the time – as a reviewer I see lots of not-very-good books: novels which are cynical imitations of another title which did quite well a few years ago, novels written to a formula, novels cranked out when the writer had a deadline but was struggling for inspiration. And everyone’s favourite punching bag, Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s fun to slag off books and as a wannabe author it’s encouraging – if this load of old twaddle can get published, so can I. So yes, I do it, I’m only human.

But it’s also deeply wrong and unfair, because every non-celeb person who has ever had a book published deserves huge respect for beating the odds. They have been through at least a dozen agonising and increasingly Hunger Games-esque stages to get there…

To get your book published takes faith determination and a rhino-like skin1: They had a Very Good Idea. You know, just like the one that’s floating round your head at the moment that would be an absolute best seller if only you could find the time to write it all down.

2: They had a Second Very Good Idea which gave the initial Very Good Idea wings. Boy goes to wizard school has potential, but Orphaned boy goes to wizard school where he discovers a dark link between himself and the powerful wizard who murdered his parents is the start of a seven-book series.

3: They found the time to write it down. Hours. Days. Months. In the middle of the night, getting out of bed at 5am, punching it out with their thumbs on their iPhone on a commute. Or even giving up their jobs. Despite all the crap going on in their lives, they found the time.

4: They didn’t give up when they got 30,000 words in and realised that the Second Very Good Idea actually doesn’t work at all unless they go back and unpick everything that happened after Chapter Two. Instead, they went back and unpicked. Or they replaced the duff Second Idea with a shiny new Third Very Good Idea which made it even better.

5: They wrote 60,000 to 150,000 words about Very Good Ideas One and Two (or Three.) It might not be in a genre you like, it might be too light and fluffy or too flabby and pretentious but they wrote the words down. A story now exists where there was none before.

6: Then they edited, going through the whole thing until they were sick of the sight of it, rejigging it, taking bits out, regretting it, putting them back in. They cut things they loved, sliced out whole characters and wrote entirely new scenes instead, all the while not truly knowing whether they were making the thing better or worse.

7: They then sent it to agents. Dozens of ‘em. They received rejection email after rejection email until they wondered whether the Very Good Idea was actually Utter Tripe Idea in disguise. Maybe they took too long writing it and nobody wants dystopian YA stories any more, or a major plot point has been wiped out by the invention of Google Maps. Or maybe they just wasted an immense amount of their time and passion on something nobody wants to read. This could happen, and does – all the time. But if it doesn’t…

More bashing into shape ensues

8: An agent actually picks it out of their slush pile of hundreds, is moved by the words, blown away by VGIs One and Two, and signs them up. More editing ensues. Author and agent eventually agree that book is in good shape. Hooray!

9: Said agent believes in the book enough to haul it all around town to different publishers, or even take it to a book fair and say: “Buy my client’s book, it’s great and it will make money for you.”

10: In order to get a book deal, the author then has to cage fight JK Rowling using only a copy of The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook as a weapon. Oh wait, no, that’s just a weird dream I had.

10: A publisher sees the book, likes it and thinks that this is a Very Good Idea, which will possibly make money for them.

11: The publisher then introduces an editor into the mix who undertakes more Bashing Into Shape along with the author who is probably feeling pretty bashed themself by now. Once they’re happy, they haul it around town to the booksellers and supermarkets, convincing them that the author has had a Very Good Idea and that they, too could make money from it.

12: It has been years since the author had the Very Good Idea but it’s stood the test of time, it’s on the shelves. Now the author, the publisher and booksellers all join forces to convince us – the reading public – that the Very Good Idea is worth spending the price of a cup of coffee on.

What a way to make a living!

Seriously, it’s ridiculous, but that’s the way it works in traditional publishing. So to get your book onto shelves and into people’s hands takes an astonishing amount of faith in yourself and your idea, extraordinary discipline and commitment plus a rhino-like skin to deal with all those rejections and edits along the way. So anyone who has ever, ever had anything published is an utter hero. I salute you. And one day, glutton for punishment that I am, I hope to join you.

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Book review: The Girl Who Came Out of the Woods by Emily Barr

the girl who came out of the woods postcardFor the first sixteen years of her life, Arty lives in paradise. She, her parents and a group of idealists have built a small community in a clearing in the middle of the Indian forest. It’s not an easy life but it’s a happy one – a matriarchal society where every community member is a god or goddess, decisions are made by consensus and her biggest worry is whether the monkeys are going to steal their food.

However one night everything goes horrifically wrong and Arty finds herself stumbling out of the trees into the 21st Century, to a world she has been taught to fear. Her old life is gone forever – but can she make a new one in this crazy place of money, Bollywood, ice cream and Instagram?

Can she make a new life in this crazy place of money, Bollywood, ice cream and Instagram?

Lonely and traumatised, faced with a family she’s never met – some of whom have secrets of their own – Arty needs to figure out who she can trust and who to fear – not an easy task when her mother’s last advice to her was “don’t go into the basement.”

Not everybody in the outside world has Arty’s best interests at heart.

I’m already a fan of Emily Barr’s, but I grabbed this one with extra enthusiasm because I love a cult – any story about a group of people trying to break away from society and think differently always fascinates me. This one’s a bit different though – in most books the cult becomes twisted, dominated by poisonous groupthink and manipulation. But in this story it’s the outside world which is a dark and terrifying place and the “cult” could teach us a thing or two about getting along.

There’s so many elements to this book it’s difficult to classify. It’s a thriller, full of thrillery tricks and twists and darkness. It’s a novel about travel and adventure. It’s also a coming-of-age story with a vein of wry humour running throughout, along with a sense of wonder and hope for the future. Each of Emily Barr’s books is stronger than the last and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

The Girl Who Came Out Of The Woods is out now

Cover of the girl who came out of the woods

Two other books about cults or isolated religious communities…

Laurie and Martha are a power couple with the world at their feet – but Laurie is still traumatised by the years she spent in the clutches of a controlling religious sect and when it gets too much she holes up in a tiny, secret room in their house. Then a man from her past appears and begins manipulating her teenage daughter. The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy uses the minutiae of everyday life and the horrors of the cult to create a tense, atmospheric story.

Educated is Tara Westover’s gorgeously written memoir of her strict, religious upbringing in the remote countryside and it’s absolutely fascinating. School was banned, traditional medicine was forbidden, the End of Days was always around the corner and violence was an everyday occurrence. As she grows up Tara faces a choice – remain loyal to her father despite growing doubts about his views or educate herself and alienate the family she loves.

And two I can’t wait to read…

The Rapture by Claire McGlasson is a debut novel about a “terribly English cult” called The Panacea Society – devoted member Dilys strikes up a friendship with new recruit Grace, but as their leader’s zealotry increases their faith, and the community, begins to fall apart… Out 6 June 2019

Crime writer Alex Marwood has long been fascinated by cults, narcissistic leaders and groupthink and her book The Poison Garden tells the story of Romy who escaped a toxic cult and, like Emily Barr’s Arty, doesn’t know who to trust in the outside world. Although if I know my Marwood, this story is going to get very, very dark… Out 25 July 2019

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I wrote a book in three weeks and it changed everything

A few months ago, I wrote a book in the space of a few weeks. It wasn’t a particularly long one – just 12,000 words and it wasn’t a masterwork of fiction poured from my heart through the filter of my amazing literary talent.

In fact if I had to define it, Everything You Need To Know: Kings And Queens Through The Ages is one of those fun books you give to people at Christmas and then spot in their downstairs loo months later. But hey – a book is a book.

A friend put me in touch with a new publishing company which was planning to roll out a whole Everything You Need To Know series and needed writers. I fancied a new challenge and after a couple of enthusiastic emails I had myself a tasty commission. There was one small problem – they wanted the book in three and a half weeks.

All it took was a punishing deadline and the will to ignore my family

And so I was off, researching up a storm. I spent hours in my local library scouring biographies for light-hearted trivia, trawled Wikipedia for leads then disappeared down a wondrous rabbit hole of historical blogs and academic papers. In the process I became an expert on things I’d never been remotely interested in before. I found myself watching The Crown saying things like “Of course Princess Margaret’s been on a bus” or “ooh look, it’s the Poltimore Tiara!”

And as I worked, the words just came – lining up gleefully on the page as I discovered each treasure trove of trivia. It was tons of fun. Of course when this happens it’s usually a sign that the work will need some serious editing later on but the fact remains: at the beginning of the month there was no book – three and a half weeks later, there was one.

By then I was knackered – I’d been doing all my regular freelance work alongside it so had been working until 2am for weeks – but also kind of exhilarated. Because after spending years in limbo with my own novel, tapping out the odd paragraph between commissions, I realised I could write something long-form (well long-ish), and write it fast. All it took was a punishing deadline and the will to ignore my family for set periods of time.

And so, in the weeks that followed I came to a decision. For years I’d been struggling to fit my fiction writing around the demands of a fast-turnaround freelance job, plus the needs of two small children and a raggedy, untidy house. As a result my novel has inched along slowly, sometimes lying neglected in my Dropbox for weeks. It’s time to make a change, to take a run at it like I did with Kings & Queens.

And so from the end of last year that’s what I started to do.  I dropped all freelance work except book reviews – I could never give up book reviews. And while it was incredibly painful it was also a huge relief because for the first time in years I was prioritising the career I wanted.

Having time to concentrate made all the difference

A few months later, I have finished editing the manuscript of my YA crime novel, The Girl Who, and have started sending it to agents. Having the time to concentrate on this project has made all the difference. I know I’m privileged to be able to do it, that I have a husband in work who is able to shoulder the financial burden for a while – many others don’t have that luxury. It’s no wonder the world of writing is so inaccessible for so many – there’ll be a blog on this in the near future as I have a lot to say about this.

Sadly, things did not end well for poor old Kings & Queens. Despite the punishing deadline it’s now languishing in publishing no-man’s-land, like an ageing heir awaiting an abdication, as booksellers didn’t pick it up. But still, it could be the most important book I ever wrote, as it gave me the confidence to carry on.

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Book review: Haunted by Ghost Wall

cover of Ghost Wall by Sarah MossOver a thousand years ago out in the Northumberland countryside a girl was sacrificed: kicked, beaten, tortured and finally buried in the bog by her family, her friends and the people she had grown up with. How could a community turn on someone like that, and why?

This eerie scene leads us into Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – and the presence of the Bog Girl haunts every page, even as we jump forward into the 1990s.

Why anyone would voluntarily live an Iron Age life is a mystery but a small group of enthusiasts is spending the summer doing just that, camped out on the moors hunting and gathering. The Professor and his students are doing it in the name of research, Silvie’s amateur history-buff father Bill does it to fuel his obsession with the Iron Age and Silvie and her mother are doing it because they do whatever Bill tells them or they’ll pay the price.

Bill dominates his family, just as he believes a prehistoric patriarch would and as the little community divides and violent undercurrents emerge, Silvie is torn between loyalty to him and the growing need to break free.

Every word has been carefully chosen

The unnerving link between Silvie and the Bog Girl adds a darkness and sense of anticipation which pulls the reader deep into the story. Sarah Moss’ lyrical writing is silky smooth – the novel is short and every word has been carefully chosen. The lack of quotation marks can make the dialogue a bit difficult to follow, though.

Despite the blurb this isn’t a twisty thriller or a horror novel. Instead it’s punching at bigger themes: domestic abuse, teenage identity and even class issues (part of Bill’s rage springs from resentment – as a working class man he’s patronised and has never been free to pursue his passion for history.)

But at the centre of this book is a bigger question. How many steps away are we from the kind of savagery and superstition which killed Bog Girl? And will Silvie follow in her muddy footsteps, thousands of years after? A disturbing, offbeat and haunting story.

Ghost Wall is out now.

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How to edit your novel on Kindle

It’s been two months since I typed The End on my manuscript. I thought it would feel exciting and wonderful, but actually I felt kind of flat. Because although I was pleased to get to the end of my first draft – SIX FLAMING YEARS after starting it – I also knew there was tougher work to come. I dreaded the process of picking apart my hard-woven words, taking out all those flowery bits which seemed so beautiful at the time and crunching the plot.

Yup, I was dreading the editing process.

There’s just something about scrolling through a Word document which bogs me down. I pick apart sentences and shift words around but it’s impossible to step back and look at the broader flow of the story or check the pacing. Reading on-screen or even in an A4 printout doesn’t feel the same as reading a book.

I had the chance to read my book as the average reader would

Before Christmas I sent the manuscript to a kind, generous and straight-talking author friend for feedback and she asked me to send it to her in ebook form so she could read it on her Kindle. After an initial technophobic panic, I downloaded an app called Calibre which allows you to convert Word documents to .mobi or .epub files so they can work on an e-reader. Self published authors will know this process well, but it was new to me.

It suddenly dawned on me that I had the chance to read my book as a reader would. On a Kindle while sitting on the bus, lying in bed or brushing my teeth (Just me? Probably.)

It didn’t take long to convert the latest version of my MS (instructions are below if you haven’t done it before) and I got a genuine kick out of seeing my words on the Kindle screen. It felt more like an actual book than it ever had before.

Reading in that format prevented me from stopping every few minutes to perform major (probably unnecessary) surgery on an actually-probably-OK paragraph but I could still use the highlight and note features to jot things down as I went along.

It’s been a completely refreshing, new way to look at the book and definitely worth doing if you’re in a slump. Once I’ve finished, I’m planning to keep the ebook in front of me as I make changes which makes me feel one step ahead on the brutal editing process – and one step closer to getting my book off the ground.

How to turn your MS into an e-book (for editing, not self-publishing purposes)

This might be a completely bleeding obvious process for some people, but super handy for others, like me, who are new to this malarkey.

screenshot of calibre app open on a desktop

The Calibre window open on my desktop

1: Download Calibre online. My computer runs on Linux rather than Windows, which is probably why the screen grabs look a bit weird – but Windows versions are available. I used a dummy Masterpiece for the screen grabs – that obviously isn’t the title of my book. I did this because I STILL CAN’T FLIPPING THINK OF A GOOD TITLE FOR MY WIP DAMMIT.

2: Open Calibre and go to Add Books to import your document.

click on Output Format at top left to convert to .mobi

Add a cover then click on Output Format at top left to convert to .mobi

3: Then select your book and click on Convert Books. Go to Output Format and select .mobi for a Kindle. Other readers can run .epub documents. I added a random photo of an Elvis impersonator as a cover, just to see if it worked. It showed up in the actual document but, disappointingly, not on my Kindle homepage.

4: Hook up your Kindle to your computer and drag-and-drop your mobi into the documents folder with your other ebooks. You can obviously try to email it using your Kindle email address but I’ve had patchy results with this.

If you decide to try this too – or have used it lots before – let me know how you get on!

All about being stuck in the middle of a novel with no end in sight

How writers need networks

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Twisted fairy tales: The Hazel Wood and beyond

If you’ve ever read real fairy tales, you’ll know the concept of a fairytale ending is far from perfect. Before Disney got his sugar-coated hands on them, they were dark, stark teaching tales – some of them with an obvious moral, others simply twisted stories that people passed around at night to scare the petticoats off each other.

page from a fairy tale book illustrating rapunzel including a picture of a witch and tangled treesBluebeard’s chamber was full of the corpses of his former wives, characters are blinded, torn apart by wild animals. It’s worse of course if you’re the stepmother. You could be tricked into eating the minced-up body of your own daughter, rolled down a hill in a barrel lined with nails or, if you were foolish enough to be cruel to Snow White, you could end up with your feet being forced into red-hot iron shoes and dancing yourself to death.

Nope, real fairy tales – not so nice.pages from a fairytale book pictures of two giants on the rampage

Over the years many authors have drawn inspiration from this fairytale darkness, but Melissa Albert takes it to a new level. Her novel, The Hazel Wood, manages to out-grim the Brothers Grimm.

Seventeen-year-old Alice spent her life on the run across America with her wonderful but erratic mother, who was always bundling her into the car and hitting the road at the first sign of trouble. It’s no wonder that she becomes obsessed with her rich, eccentric grandmother, Althea Prosperine.

The Hazel Wood manages to out-grim the Brothers Grimm

Althea’s book of fairytales became a cult hit in the postwar years, enabling her to buy a huge estate north of New York, called The Hazel Wood. She since became a recluse, and her book mysteriously vanished from shelves which only feeds Alice’s fascination.

Then Alice’s mother is kidnapped and Alice herself begins to realise that the frighteningimage of a fairytale book open at an illustration of the wild swans creatures from her grandmother’s tales might not be fictitious after all.

The Hazel Wood’s strength is that Melissa Albert has weaved a whole host of new tales rather than relying on the ones we grew up with, so they feel oddly familiar but warped and twisted. Some of the stories are woven into the book, but others are just alluded to, with horrific names such as Twice Killed Katherine.

I’d like to have read more of the actual fairytales themselves, although it could be the author decided to keep us in the dark to add to that sense of the unknown. Perhaps there’ll be a spin-off volume later, JK Rowling style.

Cover of The Hazel Wood by Melissa AlbertIt’s a hugely accomplished book for a debut author, beautifully written and atmospheric. The heroine is tough, scrappy and flawed – although her anger issues are more talked-about than experienced, it would have been fun to explore them more. I had a bit of a crush on her sidekick, Ellery Finch. I’m not at all surprised that the film rights have been sold already.

After finishing The Hazel Wood I immediately went to my fairy tale shelf (yes, I have one) and dipped into The Annotated Brothers Grimm, edited by the incredibly knowledgeable Maria Tatar. Re-reading Tatar’s matter-of-fact tone and footnotes, plus ominous titles such as The Hand With The Knife, the link with The Hazel Wood is clear to see. Pick up a copy of both and dive in… Just don’t read them to your children.

The Hazel Wood is out now

The images are from my 1970s volume of Classic Fairy Tales, which is what started this whole thing for me in the first place.

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The Feed: a chilling glimpse into our future?

What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever checked your social media? On a mountain top with an incredible view? In a meeting? In the bathroom while brushing your teeth? When you’re supposed to be talking to a real live person right there in front of you?

If you tick no to all these then congratulations, you are a wholesome human being and I envy you, because I am unashamedly hooked. My life and routine are such now that I don’t get many moments to myself and if I do, the quickest easiest way to entertain myself it just to check up on what everybody else is doing.

the Feed goes down and civilisation comes to an end

In the Nick Clark Windo’s The Feed, society has taken this to the next level. The Internet has jumped out of our phones and is in our heads – no screens, no keyboards, just a constant stream of knowledge, chatter, sponsored content and the real gut feelings of our nearest and dearest.

The whole world is using it – crowded restaurants are silent because everyone is interacting online, you witness a crime being committed and the Feed tells you where you can buy the attacker’s trainers, nobody can read any more because information is delivered straight to the brain.

But then a series of mysterious assassinations and terror plots begin and, one terrible night, the Feed goes down and civilisation comes to an end. Many people die from the shock – the author compares it to a sudden lobotomy.

cover image of the feed by nick clark windoThis is a fantastic Black Mirror-esque idea for a tale and the hook dragged me in straight away, but at first I did find the book a little frustrating. I wanted to know more about the Feed and the mysterious Taken people and less about the post-apocalyptic mess which followed its collapse. And I couldn’t quite warm to Tom and Kate, the nice middle class couple caught up in it all as they search the countryside looking for their missing daughter. I also didn’t truly buy into the idea that almost everyone on the entire planet – rich and poor, developing and developed world – had the feed in their brains. What about the underclass who could never afford it – they’d really come out on top in this world… But that’s probably another story.

It’s a fantastic Black Mirroresque idea

Then on page 183 (of my copy) something happens which made me go oohhhh… then I started racing through it. The characters have more depth then, more potential for pain and growth. And there at last were the glimpses of what went wrong with society and the explanation was more imaginative and fantastical (but plausible) than I could have suspected. A genuine surprise twist which, when you look back, is actually very nicely set up without leaving any obvious giveaways. That sort of thing is hard to find these days.

And through the paciness and the fight to survive in the ruins of society there is some real stuff to think about here. The Feed sounds like a horrifying thing but it has its good side too – the joy of sharing and communicating with the entire world, the strength of having so much knowledge right there in your head. These days it’s almost accepted without question that social media is a menace, it’s addictive, it’s taking people’s heads out of the real world. But it does good things too. People find their tribes – cosplayers, knitting addicts, soap fans. And for some people, like those struggling with racism, homophobia or transphobia in their own offline communities, going online and knowing they’re not alone is a huge source of strength.

Like the Internet we know and love/hate, The Feed a mixed bag. And it’s definitely something to think about next time I check my Facebook updates under the covers at 6.30am.

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo is out now

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The Chalk Man: A creepy 80s thriller… a fun book launch

Set in the 1980s and the present day, The Chalk Man is one of my top thriller picks in a pile of chalk man hardbacksmonth teeming with twisty tales. It’s a brilliantly original idea: in the 1980s a gang of kids use chalk figures to communicate with each other. It’s all innocent, although somewhat creepy-looking fun until the day the chalk figures lead them to a body hidden in the woods. Thirty years later the gang has moved on, but has to confront the past when the figures start appearing again…

It’s a killer hook and debut author CJ Tudor has woven a confident, evocative story with great characters and a Stephen King-esque feel to it. It helps if, like me, you grew up in the 80s and have fond memories of Buckaroo, The Goonies and BMX bikes but readers of any age will relate to that feeling of being a child, yearning for adventure and stressing about how much your friends really like you.

There are a few chinks in the tightly-plotted armour but it’s such an absorbing, exciting story that I was completely carried away. Definitely worth reading. I’ve also heard great things about her next novel – involving an eerie abandoned mine in the North of England.

CJ Tudor with publicists jenny platt and laura nicol

CJ Tudor with her fab publicity team

So I was thrilled to venture out of my writing and reviewing cave to attend the book launch last night. It really is great to see a debut author so blown away by the response to her book and to learn that her love of the 1980s is very passionate and real – after five minutes chatting to her I was desperate to go off and rent The Lost Boys again.

Her story is also an inspiration to aspiring novelists everywhere. Caz was running a dog-walking business when she was inspired by her daughter Betty’s chalk drawings on their driveway. As she played fetch and scooped poop, the plot refined itself in her head.

It wasn’t her first attempt at a book – she’d been writing on and off for 10 years and that practice really shows in her writing – her agent admitted she was blown away at the first reading and it went onto become the agency’s fastest-selling debut. The book has already been sold across the world in multiple languages.

So although the book has an unnerving atmosphere, the scene at the launch venue, The Driver pub in North London, was celebratory and full of hope and excitement. I’m looking forward to seeing what CJ Tudor does next.

The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor is out now

creepy image of a hangman drawn in chalk

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Book review: The Truth And Lies of Ella Black

the truth and lies of ella black by emily barrElla Black is a good girl, to the point of boring. She studies hard, she keeps her head down and the craziest thing she’s ever done is dye her hair purple. But the reason she’s so good is that she has an alter-ego – the violent, destructive Bella. The first time Bella makes an appearance she does something so shocking I almost dropped the book and it’s clear why Ella needs to keep on the straight and narrow and keep Bella under control.

But then one day her parents collect her from school early and, without explaining why, fly her to Rio de Janeiro. There Ella learns the truth about herself – a truth which unleashes Bella in all her crazed glory and that means her safe, comfortable life has gone forever…

That’s the setup for The Truth And Lies of Ella Black, by Emily Barr – who specialises in weaving travel and exotic locations into gripping plots. This is her second novel for young adults (I also loved The One Memory Of Flora Banks last year) and I know fans are going to love it.

Teenage me loves Ella’s longing for adventure… adult me loves the dark suspense

Whenever I read a YA novel there are actually two people reading. There’s me – the not-so-young adult writer and book fanatic, and then there’s teenage me holed up in my pretentious looking bedroom waiting for the day when something will happen to change my life forever too.

teenage me sitting at my desk with lots of books in the background and my pet dog jack photobombing me

Teen me in my bookish bedroom being photobombed by my collie, Jack.

Most of the time the books I love now aren’t the same as the books I loved then. I never wanted to read about girls like me, going to school and worrying about friendships and boys – I had enough of that in my day to day life. I wanted fairytale romance and pure escapism. These days I like my stories grittier, my characters more flawed. But Ella Black appeals to both versions of me.

What Emily Barr does so well is create a sense of escapism – for teens desperate to explore the world her description of the beaches, streets and favelas of Rio is compelling and addictive – like Ella you want to find out what’s around the corner. Teenage me loves Ella and identifies with her longing for adventure – adult me loves the dark suspense over what Bella will do next and the slow creeping realisation of what her secret really is. All of me wants to book a ticket to Brazil, like, RIGHT NOW.

It’s a thriller, a coming of age novel with a splash of South American colour a slice of romance and added zombie parades. Teenagers of all ages will long to dive in.

The Truth And Lies of Ella Black by Emily Barr is out now

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