How Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper made me have all sorts of Important Thoughts

I’ve already written about how Unfollow convinced me to start blogging again after a long hiatus. It’s funny how sometimes the right book hits you at the right time and sparks something in your mind. It made me Think Big Thinky Thoughts about Life, Hate, Family and Twitter. It might not press that button for for everyone but Unfollow is still a fascinating insight into what it’s like growing up in a loving family which was full of hate for the outside world.

The cover of Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper showing the Westboro Baptist Church with a god hates America banner on the front of it

For her whole life, Megan Phelps-Roper was a member of the Westboro Baptist Church – the fanatics who rejoiced after 9/11 claiming it was God’s way of punishing sinful America; the ones who picketed military funerals with signs saying Thank God for Dead Soldiers. Megan grew up with a God Hates Fags banner in her hand and later, on Twitter, became the church’s mouthpiece and online provocateur. But in 2012 she left, turning her back on the church’s message, despite knowing her family would cut her off.

When I first picked the book up I was afraid to trust Megan. Could you really grow up in a community of hate and simply let all those prejudices go? Had she really rejected all Westboro’s teachings or just chosen to leave the church after it turned on her family? There’s no doubt the latter was a factor, but as I read Megan’s slow unpicking of her belief system I was totally convinced by it.

You can raise your children to hate but it doesn’t necessarily stick

I learned quite a few surprising things from this book. Firstly that Twitter can be a kind place. We’re used to thinking of it as a shrill echo chamber or a troll’s paradise, and it’s people like Megan – or old Megan at least – who make us think that. For years she tweeted her church’s hate-filled message, dressing it up in clever banter and emojis (You’re going to hell 😀), raising hysteria and public awareness of her obscure little church in the process.

But while most people reacted with (understandable) outrage others, including Jews and members of the LGBT community, engaged patiently and kindly, gradually breaking down the rigid thinking imposed by her family until it finally fell away.

That’s the other thing I learned from the book – you can raise your children to hate, but it doesn’t necessarily stick. It’s human nature to think, to question. These days everyone seems so polarised it seems impossible that civilised debate and questioning could change someone’s mind – but in this case it did. That’s something that’s good to know.

For slow readers, the part at the beginning, where she’s still signed up to the church’s thinking might be an uncomfortable read, especially if you’re a member of one of the groups she was taught to revile or a victim of one of the church’s pickets. But I do think it’s worth reading on.

a picture of unfollow by megan phelps roper on a train table with a blue portable tea cup next to it

There are definitely still secrets at Westboro – Megan alludes to the violence of her grandfather and the temper of her mother but won’t go any further – her loyalty to her family is still tangible throughout the book even as she rejects their ‘values’. They might condemn her as a fallen woman on her path to hell but she will never let go of them.

I found the Bible verses hard going – long thee-and-thou quotes lovingly drawn from the King James Bible, which the Westboro members used to justify their hardline stance. I found myself grumpily skimming over lots of those but as I read on I came to understand why they were there. They’re not for me, or for 98 per cent of the people reading this book – they’re for her family. Because I get the feeling that the real reason Megan has written Unfollow is as an escape manual for her siblings who are still trapped in the Church’s thinking, and an explanation to her still-beloved and now estranged parents. That fact alone makes it a heartbreaking read.

Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope by Megan Phelps-Roper is out now

Why I’ve decided to keep blogging

Let’s be honest, this book blog has never really got off the ground. I make a start, do a few regular posts, then life takes over. I get a few urgent commissions, my poor neglected novel-in-progress needs attention, my entire family descends from different parts of the world wanting to catch up, my kids get ill. Of all the things in my head clamouring for attention, this blog has the smallest voice.

But the main reason I struggle to post anything is that I’ve never been sure why I’m doing it. I trained as a journalist in the 1990s and was taught in no uncertain terms to keep myself out of the story. You are not interesting, the tutors would say. Nobody needs to know what you have to say.

I was thinking of giving up, then two things happened…

And I still partly agree with that. Who needs this particular straight, white, middle-aged, middlish-class print media person yammering on about what books she likes? What’s so bloody special about my perspective?

And then there were the books themselves. Most people devote themselves to a single genre: they’re commercial fiction bloggers, sci-fi, horror, fantasy etc. I write YA fiction, but I never met a genre I didn’t like. I read pretty much everything so I’m never going to find a niche of loyal followers anywhere.

Another problem is that I’m chronically agnostic. I’m all about the shades of grey. I can see good things in the books I hate, and all the flaws in the books I love. “Ooh, nothing’s more entertaining than equivocation…” said no-one ever. I’m hardly about to set the world on fire, so why bother?

Last of all is the amount of hard work it takes to build a following. People post and post and shout and shout about their blogs which leads me back to my original point about not wanting to foist my opinions on other people.*

So recently I’ve been thinking of quietly winding the whole thing up. Then two things happened.

cover image of Unfollow a journey from hatred to h ope, leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by megan Phelps-Roper

First, I read Unfollow, by Megan Phelps-Roper – the story of how a girl was raised in the fanatical Westboro Baptist Church, had been holding horrible God Hates Fags signs since she could walk, but somehow got up the courage to leave the church, her family and the life she’d known because she realised what she was doing was wrong. (Review to come later once I’ve got this post out of my system.)

At the end of her book, she speaks about how often she sees the symptoms of Westboro mindset in the wider world – polarisation, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias. I completely understood what she meant – we might not all be holding offensive signs but many of us stubbornly cling to our beliefs in the face of opposition. And books are a great way of unlocking a closed mind, getting you to see things from another perspective. As a sheltered suburban teen Tales of The City gave me an insight into LGBT life I wouldn’t have otherwise had. More recently The Hate U Give put me in the centre of #BlackLivesMatter in the way a news report never could.

About an hour after I finished reading Unfollow, an author friend on social media made a throwaway comment which went something like: because of the Internet people expect to get words for free now. Soon nobody will buy books which means nobody will be able to write them.

Having just finished reading a book which had made me think a LOT, I suddenly had this desire to champion books, to never let them die. And that if I am a privileged white middleish class media person (most of the time I look at my overdraft and don’t feel privileged at all, but that’s another post…) then I should add whatever privilege I have to speak up for life changing books, biographies that open your eyes, stories that keep you up all night, novels that take you to new worlds or make you feel like you’re not alone in yours.

There’s a brilliant, vibrant community of book bloggers out there championing the books they care about. Why shouldn’t I join in?

meme stating I don't believe in much, but I do believe in books

As I write this the editor in me is already saying that none of this is news, all this has been written before. I think there was even an episode of Doctor Who about it. But clearly it needs to be said again and again and again. More and more loudly, by more and more people.

So here’s the deal. I’m not going to post several times a week, I’m not going to blog about every single book that I read but if I read something that I love, or that sweeps me away or made me think, I’m going to talk about it on here. Three or four people might even read it. One of you might even leave a comment (thanks Mum!)

So, for now, and until lame excuses take over again, I’m in. I really hope I can write something that helps make a difference.

*NB: I cringed the whole time I wrote this. Still cringing now.

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.

Tales of a book reviewer

I’ve just finished a nine month stint reviewing books for Good Housekeeping. Their Huge bookshelf stuffed with booksBookshelf page is one of the most densely populated ones in monthly magazines – around 15 slots to fill each month and, because obviously not every book makes the cut, you have to dip into considerably more than that.

Some months it was a struggle – I was speed-reading into the night, getting to the end of yet another wannabe Gone Girl and groaning when I realised that the twist at the end was just too stupid. Finishing a review only to find the publication date had changed and I had five hours to find a replacement for the page. Or realising that a novel didn’t live up to the hype surrounding it.

But most of the time it was brilliant. Receiving a pile of review copies in the post never got old – although my postman may have aged prematurely. Attending book launches and chatting with fellow book buffs online made me feel part of a wonderful community.

The process of sorting through a week's #bookpost

The process of sorting through a week’s #bookpost

But the best thing about the job was being surprised. There are plenty of books I expected to love and did love, but nothing beats the feeling of picking something up without any particular expectations and then suddenly feeling a deep connection with it. Here are some which really took me aback:

 

 

In Shock by Dr Rana Awdish We’ve had medic-turned-patient memoirs before, like the amazing When Breath Becomes Air, but the urgency and pace of this really grabbed me. And she has such fascinating thoughts on the doctor-patient relationship and where communication goes wrong.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson – I generally avoid anything which feels a bit hypey. All those books about how great French women are, others urging me to get hygge or live lagom… But the author is so wise and charming. She’s aged “somewhere between the age of eighty and a hundred” and I fell in love with her warm, wry and understated tone.

When will I learn never to rule out entire authors or genres?

The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain – she’s a big best-seller but I had her down firmly in my head as “not my thing.” Silly me, when will I learn never to rule out entire authors or genres? I had a really good time reading this one and the direction of the story surprised me.

And that’s the best thing about my time reviewing for GH – stretching my reading boundaries. When you have small children days and weeks pass without reading anything at all, but this forced me to read – without procrastinating or rejecting a book because I wasn’t in the mood for a particular genre. I tore through romantic fiction, speculative fiction, literary fiction, sagas, bestsellers, poetry, bonkbusters… anything. My brain has been jump-started, my writing has improved (honest!) and now my reviewing time is up (their wonderful books ed is back from maternity leave) I’m planning to keep going and going. Watch this space.

Book review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street coverI had a fab time putting together the Cosmo summer reads list this year – it was great to be able to mix different genres and throw in a couple of wild cards. My one regret was that I spent so much time justifying this book as ‘accessible fantasy’ that I didn’t have enough words to describe how wonderful it is. I even called it a ‘caper’ which, although there were moments of high adventure, was a bit of a misnomer really. There’s so much more going on than that.

This is the story of Thaniel, a lowly Victorian civil servant who narrowly escapes an Irish Republican bomb by what seems to him like a stroke of luck. This leads him to the workshop of Keita Mori, Japanese exile, genius watchmaker and prescient.

Imagine meeting a person who remembers the future and can arrange your life to get the result he wants, lining up coincidences like a human domino run? To Thaniel Mori’s world is fascinating but his new friend Grace is profoundly disturbed. Is Mori a kindly man sorting things out for the best or a manipulative monster whose actions have robbed an innocent man of his free will?

You find yourself asking questions about love, trust and surrender

Woven through the action is an intriguing glimpse of 19th Century Japan, a race to find the mysterious bomber and a touching, unexpected love story. You find yourself asking questions about love, trust and surrender, making up your mind about a few things – then changing it again, several times in the course of a chapter.

It’s definitely a book that keeps you on your toes.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is out now.

A proper swanky launch

To look at this blog anyone would think that all I ever do is go to maritime-themed book launches. A mere two weeks after attending the Tenacity launch on a submarine, there I was walking up the gangplank of the Royal Princess, a luxurious cruise liner on Southampton docks for the launch of Chrissie Manby’s latest book, A Proper Family Adventure.

It has a wonderful streak of warmth and affection running through it.

Actually I wasn’t walking, I was limping. I had some crazy idea that a cruise ship required glamorous footwear and had forced my feet into a pair of insanely high heels. Note to self: deck shoes next time. They’re called that for a reason.

Still, apart from the ocean-wave aspect the two book-launch vessels couldn’t have been more different. There were no cramped living quarters here and no steampunk cranks and tubes. Instead think luxurious marble trims, glistening chandeliers and sweeping staircases. The ship was enormous – 19 decks catering for 3,560 guests (we all goggled in amazement when the chef told us they get through 40,000 eggs on each trip.) Facilities include a kids club, a spa and a “movies under the stars” screen on the main deck.

Check out the spangly ship, and the lovely Chrissie.

spanglyship montage lores
Unlike Chrissie, who’s fantasised about going on a cruise for years, I’ve never really fancied it. But after my tour (and now I have a small toddly person in my life, which means the words “kids’ club” have a magical power over me) I could definitely see the appeal of being ferried around the world and dropped off in interesting places. The only thing that spoiled the magic of the day was the weather. Put it this way… this is what the sun deck looks like when the ship is sailing the Med:

deck-edit
And this is what the main deck looked like during our visit:

deckStill the fabulous company and three course meal at Sabatini’s restaurant soon gave us that cushioned-in-luxury feeling you should always get on a cruise.

It was a great scene-setter for A Proper Family Adventure, which is Chrissie’s third book about the loveable, chaotic Benson clan. This time Granddad “I’ve won the bloomin’ lottery” Bill actually wins the bloomin’ lottery and takes the clan on a Mediterranean cruise to celebrate. Like all the Family books it’s funny and has such a wonderful streak of warmth and affection running through it. It’s a pleasure to read and makes you want to rush back to your hometown and hug your own family. You can read my rundown of it on the Cosmo Summer Reads page.

This is probably my last nautical themed book launch for a while (unless there are any yacht invitations out there… anyone?) but more book reviews on the way, I promise.

A Proper Family Adventure is out now.

And for better cruise-porn pictures and detail than I could ever provide, try Princess Cruises.

PS: here’s a glimpse of the shoes, looking down at the water on the ship’s famous SeaWalk deck. Ow. Ow. Ow.

shoes-ow

Book review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

TifAni can’t wait to marry her cookie-cutter Perfect Boyfriend. So why is it that, in the very first scene of Luckiest Girl Alive she is fantasising about stabbing him with their carefully chosen designer wedding cutlery?

It could be because – whisper it – she can be a bit of a cow. In fact, there is lots that will irritate you about TiFani FaNelli. Her snobbery, which blends beautifully with her inverted snobbery; her snarky asides about perfectly nice people and not least her heartfelt belief that size 12 is fat. Even reading her name grates – did the caps lock button keep getting stuck when they made out her birth certificate?

But TiFani is not a heroine, she’s a person. Sometimes she’s a pain in the arse, other times she’s sweet, compassionate and funny – like many real people are. And it’s the compelling reality of the character that is making Jessica Knoll’s novel one of the big word-of-mouth hits of this year.

TiFani is not a heroine, she’s a person.

Back at High School TifAni made a few mistakes. She hung out with the wrong people, she got a crush on the wrong boy and set in motion a chain of events which affected the whole school and still haunt her 10 years on. The wedding has become her way of showing she’s moved on, that she is no longer TifAni but has reinvented herself as Ani Harrison – successful writer on a glossy magazine, wearer of designer clothes and WASP in training. But as Madonna could tell you, reinventions are rarely permanent and don’t really fool anyone. As the wedding gets closer she’s forced to confront what happen to her in the past, and things start to unravel…

Luckiest Girl Cover resizeSo chances are you won’t love TifAni. But you’ll sit up all night reading to find out what happened to her, whether she’ll get the wedding she deserves and who she decides to be in the end.

When I was a kid I loved Cinderella heroines. I loved the idea that if you were a good person and kept doing the right thing eventually someone would notice and give you a big sparkly tiara and a fancy title. And most of us have never fallen out of love with that idea (otherwise who would have bought Fifty Shades of Grey, ever?) But in the past few years there’s been a bit of an awakening. A desire for real three dimensional characters who we will love, warts, neuroses and all.

That’s how we ended up with Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck character, and Eliza Kennedy’s sexy debut novel I Take You which features yet another driven New York heroine trying to balance love with her unfortunate casual sex habit. Bluebirds do not alight on these women’s shoulders when they get dressed in the morning. They do not sing about how a dream is a wish your heart makes. But they take us to new, entertaining places where women are fully formed human beings with layered, complicated lives. And with women like that, you never know what will happen next.

Luckiest Girl Alive is out in hardback now

The importance of being tenacious

Two years ago, when I set up this blog all bright eyed and full of enthusiasm, I wrote about the Arvon course I attended and how great it was to meet like-minded writers, discuss our characters, plot and story arcs etc. But while we were having all these lovely big chats there was one guy who ducked out of most of our sessions, who didn’t want to join in with our dialogue workshops and storyline exercises. You’d stumble on him tucked in one or other cosy corner of the beautiful Lumb Bank Centre, hunched over his laptop hammering the keys. “Can’t talk now, I’m writing…”

Unlike most of us he was near the end of his project and you could almost see the waves of determination coming off him. I wasn’t surprised to hear that he’d landed one of the top agents in the biz, that there had been a bidding war for his first manuscript. The guy was called James Law and last week I went to the launch of his first novel, Tenacity. The name really couldn’t have been more appropriate.

you could almost see the waves of determination coming off him

It’s a dark, claustrophobic crime novel set on a submarine – James spent years on subs, so there’s lots of naval detail. It follows the story of a lone female investigator trapped with a hostile all-male crew, one of whom might just be a killer…

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At Arvon James waxed lyrical about the addictive action of the Millennium trilogy. And while I’m not a fan of Stieg Larsson’s waffly prose and the graphic violence against women James has dodged both of those Larsson traits while piling on the tension, suspense and secrets. I’m only about half way through so I don’t know the end yet, but as Tenacity is the first in a series I’m guessing that naval investigator Danielle “Dan” Lewis makes it through.

Unsurprisingly, the wine flowed

The launch was fabulously nautical – at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport. There were speeches, readings and a genuine vintage sub to explore. I went crazy taking close-up pictures of pipes, taps and dials – it was like some kind of steampunk nightmare, hard to imagine that dozens of sailors lived amidst all this for months at a time. And you know what? Even though it was decommissioned years ago it was still a bit whiffy. The crowd was an interesting mix of writers, journalists and James’ naval buddies. Unsurprisingly, the wine flowed.

I came away with a signed copy, which I hope will be the first in my collection of Arvon alumni publications. I also felt fired up for the first time in ages. James finished his book, which is achievement enough, but then he had enough confidence in it to shout about it and grab the publishing world’s attention. Instead of emailing his MS off into the abyss and crossing his fingers he created a military-style plan of attack with the clear objective of getting the publishing deal he wanted – and it worked.

This business is all about talent and hard work but without confidence it all just sits there mouldering away on your Dropbox.

Time to start shouting, I think.

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