Brace yourselves and dive into this masterfully written (apocalyptic) thriller by Tosca Lee
Alaskan exterior, June. A pig farmer calls his sow, Jill, but she doesn’t show up. He finds it unusual and walks deep into the forest to look for her. Eventually he finds a carcass, possibly a caribou, that has been badly bitten by a pig. Jill is nearby with a fresh litter of piglets. The farmer brushes the episode off thinking what they say about pigs is true: they eat everything. Two days later he finds her with her belly torn open and her piglets savaged around her.
The scene changes. We are no longer in Alaska, but in a mysterious compound that that appears to be some sort of prison. It is, in a way. A girl, whose name is Wynter, is escorted by two Guardians. Is she going to die? The whole set up looks like an execution is about to take place. Wynter keeps walking with nothing more than a plastic bag in her hands, no one around her talks, and she is having a million thoughts a minute, the most recurrent being ‘I am about to go to Hell.” Her sister Jaclyn and her niece Truly are standing not far, silent, eyes casted. Wynter wants to say something meaningful to Truly before whatever fate is expecting her, but the little girl runs away and she instinctively tries to get her. The efforts to kick her out of the compound are doubled and when she crosses the gates, desperation gets her. But there is a car waiting for her in the distance. Maybe it’s not all lost.
Suddenly, a step back in time. Wynter is 22 when she’s expelled from the compound, but the story goes back to the day she entered the compound for the first time. She was 9 and her sister Jacklyn was 12. Their mother, Sylvia, brought them there to escape from an abusive husband. Julie, her mother’s best friend, tried to convince her to find another solution and offered her help and shelter, but Julie refused, certain of what she was doing. They are going to leave at New Earth, an enclave in the middle of nowhere, Iowa, where they will find peace and freedom. When they arrive, they are settled in what will later be known as the guests’ house: all new arrivals are placed there when they enter the community. They are separated from all the negative things they brought with them from the outside (clothes, technology, wealth), given a strict set of rules to follow and accept a new lifestyle, made of prayer, blind faith in their leader and communal spirit. These are the ‘only’ things that Magnus, the New Prophet and spiritual leader of the cult asks his family. The inhabitants of New Earth are God’s chosen few, the only ones that will be saved when the world ends. And the world will end soon, Magnus insists. That’s why they must be prepared and extra careful with what they do, eat, think, believe.
After a trial period, Sylvia and her daughters are asked to stay. They are relocated from the guests’ house and separated. Jaclyn goes to the young women’s dormitory and Wynter to the girls’ one. Mom is moved to a barrow for single women that everyone calls the Factory and which the two girls aren’t allowed to visit. When their mother become sick, they are told only so they can pray and repent, because their mother’s illness is due to the negativity that still exists in their life. Sylvia dies of cancer anyway, and not because of the negativity in their life, but because she didn’t receive the necessary treatments.
During her permanence there, Wynter meets new people that want to enter the New Earth compound, and one of them is Shae. When Shae and her father arrive, Wynter is the one that welcomes them. She likes this new girl, they are the same age and she is magnetic. Shae is the typical rebellious teenager: five studs in each ear, smokes weed, her hair is half shaved half long, the ensemble giving her a feral look. There is something in Shae that Wynter feeds of. They listen to music together on Shae’s phone and look at pictures of her boyfriend and the ocean. It’s their secret, and for Wynter it’s very important, as she finally feels she belongs somewhere. It doesn’t matter what she does and how hard she tries, because she is never enough for New Earth. It takes her far longer than others to actually be allowed to go out the compound to work. As a matter of fact, the New Earth community is a corporation whose purpose is to save and trade ancient seeds and avoid their extinction. Some of the members are allowed to go to the nearby city to sell these seeds and other homemade products. But they need to be worthy, faithful and their outing has to be approved by the Elders and Magnus. After Shae and her father are asked to stay, she repents and confesses all the forbidden things she did with Wynter. Suddenly Wynter loses Shae, the little privilege she had and she has to spend a lot of time isolated, thinking about her sins. What she doesn’t see is that Shae is not a sudden convert, but she is only waiting for the right opportunity to escape. And she does. Shae is quickly assigned to outside work; one day she gets the petty cash from the sales and runs away.
Not long after Kestral, Magnum’s wife, dies. It’s a shock, especially because Kestral is the first person Wynter and her family met when they arrived and became a motherly figure when Sylvia passed away. Magnus, though, can’t stay unmarried. Soon his weeding with Jaclyn is announced. And so is Wynter’s wedding. With Shae’s dad. It’s another shocking news to absorb, but somehow Wynter manages to escape her fate, while Jaclyn becomes Magnus’s new wife and gives him a daughter.
Five years after these events, Wynter is eventually expelled for good.
In the car waiting for her outside is Julie, her mom’s best friend in a previous life. Behind the wheel there is Lauren, Julie’s stepdaughter. She remarried with Ken, Lauren’s father, when Lauren was one, but Wynter has no memory of that.
The outside world is a strange place, and Wynter must get used to a whole lot of new things, like the Internet, smartphones, driving, no rules to follow. She starts seeing a therapist too, and she finds out that New Earth International is on the radar of different watchdogs for being a cult, and that Kestral is not actually dead.
Back to the crazy pigs at the beginning of the story. Their farmer died and so did two of his friends. There’s a mysterious dementia-like disease spreading. A researcher finds out that the farmer liked to fry eggs and brains after a slaughter and when he examines the samples, he knows he’s onto something big. But after two days all his samples are gone.
The disease is spreading rapidly and it seems like people are virally going crazy. But it won’t be until the end that we find out about the link between the spreading dementia and New Earth, in an explosive end.
What’s even more mind-blowing is the fact that, at a certain point within the story Ken, Julie’s husband, instructs his wife to get extra supplies of food and petrol, use masks and gloves when she leaves the house, wash her hands regularly and disinfect everything. The book is dated 2018, something I had to check several times. The fact that it depicts very vividly what we’ve gone through over the past couple of years simply gave me goosebumps.
Besides the incredible closeness to what happened in real life, this book is a concentrate of fast-paced action, ups and downs and witty dialogues. The theme of being part of a cult and subsequently escaping is discussed with simplicity and lack of judgment, while the rest of the story – when Wynter is out of the compound and does her bit to help save the world – is worthy of the greatest horror masters.
The line between is highly imaginative, with a captivating, fresh prose and a catchy two-part structure. One plot line starts in the present (When Wynter is thrown out of the compound) and moves forward, while the other starts in the past and moves back and forth. It never misses a beat, though, and each time the reader is provided with new bits of information that help put together the bigger picture, just like a puzzle. Tosca Lee is simply magistral in never losing a thread. A 5/5 book that’s difficult to put down.
To find out more about Tosca Lee’s work, visit her website toscalee.com
Welcome to part two of our interview with Canadian author Jorah Kai. In this instalment, Jorah discusses his latest book, the solarpunk fantasy novel ‘Amos the Amazing’, his future creative plans and gives valuable advice to those approaching publishing for the first time.
At the end of 2022, you released your book ‘Amos the Amazing’, a “solarpunk fantasy novel”. Could you tell us a bit more about this genre?
Solarpunk is an imaginative literary and art movement that speculates on what it would look like if we solved current and future pressing problems such as social inequality due to late-stage capitalism, the climate crisis, global warming, and a lot of other social issues to reshape our society and world into something a lot more like what you saw on Star Trek. I live in a cyberpunk supercity in Asia of 34 million people. It sounds cool and looks great at night, but I want to highlight more than that – actually, it’s inspiring to live in a place that is both the world’s biggest polluter and the world’s biggest provider of solar power. To watch coal power plants transition to wind, water, and solar power, to see Chongqing become a sponge city… like it’s all very exciting for me. Solar punk envisions a world where we have overcome these social and environmental problems using technology, shifting to green energies and away from fossil fuels. Often, it involves a political shift somewhere between socialism and radical anarchism. Still, I’ve even wondered if AI would do a better job than what we’ve got going on now anyway. However we get there, we need to break through the log jam of big industry lobbyism, corruption, and resistance to new energy solutions and create a world where we live in high technology and harmony with nature. Say what you will about them – and I have some tough words for billionaires and how they manage to become real-life dragons, but Jeff Bezos does want to create Earth into a park and offload polluting industries into space, and Elon Musk did really move the needle on electric cars. In China now, there are so many electric vehicles, millions of charging stations, and even hydrogen buses that create water instead of CO2 when you drive them. So it feels very exciting to be in this country now. I hope this book and other solar punk books can inspire young readers to go into the sciences (and magick) and help change the world, recreate it into something amazing, high vibration, full of imagination and potential. We could be so much more than we are, and we have the tools to reach it.
What was your source of inspiration for the story, and what would you like readers to take away from reading it?
Amos was a great mix of many things, it is a love letter to the hundreds of fantasy novels I read as a child, and something I wanted to do for many years: mix science fiction and fantasy, using frames, to create a deeply layered experience. There is a LOT of world-building to unpack in sequels, which I think will be fun. I also choose Chongqing as the setting because it’s a wonderful and surprising city that many English speakers have probably never even word of. I used to take some students from the city to help teach rural village primary school students English on an annual spring trip before the pandemic, and it was quite an experience to watch the city kids adapt to rural life in China. That was part of it, as well. I love the opportunity to create a story that is both western and eastern, and my translator, Dr. Fei Gao, who has been a wonderful source of encouragement and support all along, has been really positive about the work as a cross-cultural achievement that, according to her, is quite interesting to Sinologists and experts in English-Chinese cross-cultural studies, which is, again, really interesting.
As part of my writing process for this book, I was asked to do a reading in Tongliang village, China, for a group of university students from Hong Kong, Macao, and Chongqing and sign some of my past books for them. I decided to write a chapter of Amos from a draft I had done up and read it at the event as ‘part of my next book.’ The response I got was incredibly encouraging, and Dr. Gao, who I met at that event, offered to facilitate a beta reading project with me: she said if I had a book to workshop by September 1, we could teach it to her cross-cultural and literary studies students. So that was, like, mid-June, and I went off for my summer break and wrote the book. By August 31, I had a draft of it, and then we began an intense 15-week course, where I scrambled to get each section polished in time for the students to read and comment on it. It was super intense and very interesting. It’s been exciting to be a writer in a foreign country these past few years. As much as I love my native Canada, I can’t imagine having the same opportunities there as I’ve been lucky enough to have here.
What would they like to take from it? I don’t want to spoil that, but I hope it inspires them to read more, believe in magick, and maybe help this world become a little more solarpunk. If I can inspire some clever kids to go into STEM fields and help invent the technologies I dream up and make our world a better place, that’s amazing. Also, with all this war machine saber rattling, I’d like my readers to know my experience. China has been a great place for me to live and work. It’s a lovely place to live. The food is juicy and delicious, and the cost of living is affordable. I think a lot of western leaders and media need an adversary to point at so people don’t ask them the hard questions about why inflation, addiction, and the environment are so out of control or why lobbying makes it legal for big corps to bribe leaders to do bad things instead of responsible ones. Still, if my books can shed some light on the beauty of other cultures and the wonders of China, too, maybe a few people will open their eyes and turn the conversation back to making their own country better rather than trying to bomb ones that are just doing their best and to be honest, the amount of work I’ve seen happen to encourage clean energy, electric and hydrogen cars, etc. in China is amazing. If the West doesn’t get its act together and step it up, China might just save the whole world by itself.
In the end, I moved to China by chance, but also, it’s very interesting to be in this ancient culture and also a very powerful nation, and have, what I hope, is a positive effect as a cross-cultural ambassador. Also, if you love Chinese food, you’ll never have as authentic Chinese food as if you come to China. It’s the real deal.
Any other interesting writing projects in the pipeline?
I’m almost done proofing the Amos the Amazing audiobook, read by award-winning voice actor Christian Neale and that’s super exciting. The way he brings the characters to life is incredibly entertaining, and it was really cool working with him to realize this project. I’m also working on rewriting a novel I wrote (drafted) about four years ago, and I think it’s time to get it out and done. I hope to get it translated into other languages and also write it as a screenplay when it’s done – it’s very cinematic and, I think, has commercial appeal. I’m working on a few experimental forms as well that are exciting because they’re ambitious and strange and feel like very new territory. After centuries of writers saying all stories have been told, we have some really new territory to break bread with, and that’s thrilling. I am going to write a book about the history of Solarpunk, but at the moment, I’m weighing out making it a nonfiction book or a fictionalized novel – I actually have drafts for both, and both have pros and cons. I believe it deserves a nonfiction treatment, but the audience for fiction is much bigger, and I want to reach as many people as possible, so I am leaning towards a cyberpunk-style adventure with possible solarpunk futurism, inspiring people to create a future worth living in. My Chinese publisher wants me to write many more Amos stories, so I will return to that world after a little break and a few other books because I want to be a better, more cohesive, and clearer writer when I return to it. As my protagonists age, I think the demands for a more mature voice will push me to take it to higher heights, but it’s another great challenge I’m also looking forward to.
As a very experienced writer, what advice would you give to aspiring authors approaching publishing (or self-publishing) for the first time?
I get a little surprised to hear myself described that way, but I’ll take it. I guess if you do anything for long enough, it’s inevitable. Whether you choose to go down the route of traditional publishing, self-publishing, or hybrid publishing, it’s a lot more work in social media, marketing, and promoting than you probably realized. The great thing about traditional publishers is you just give them the book, and they guide you the rest of the way. The problem is they may say no for a long time before one says yes, and they may require a lot of sacrifices or compromises you might not want to make. For self-publishing, it’s the converse, you dictate the timing, the material, and absolute creative control, but it’s also on you to get your cover done to a standard that someone might find appealing, recruit your team of beta readers and editors, and decide what quality of book is enough for your purposes and your audience. I’ve done both, and they both have their advantages and disadvantages. Working with my friend Garrett to create More Publishing as a micro ‘boutique’ imprint that primarily is focused on amplifying English voices and telling stories of China which is relevant to our daily lives here (I’m in Chongqing, he’s in Chengdu, about an hour away by high-speed rail). By publishing Amos in English first, I was able to get it to a level I think is about as good as it is going to get now, meaning that the Chinese translator and the traditional publishing house in China are getting a better Chinese product in the end, and I get to share it in my native language this year instead of in 5 years or so, so we were all happy about that. I’ll give you some advice that works for me, the students I’ve taught over the last decade, and advice we’d give to prospective writers hoping More Publishing might want to publish their novel; I think, in general, it’s reasonable advice for any writer.
First, dream it, and then work like you want your dream to come true. You have to make space for your dream to grow and then wake up every day and work like you believe your dream will happen. Inspiration and perspiration. Two, plan and outline. Take your book and break it into bite-sized chunks. One day, write a logline; the next, give me a paragraph showing 3 act structure. Break it into chapters the next day and tell me the beats you want each chapter to hit, then wake up and give me 2000 words for Chapter 1 before lunch. If you can’t write a scene in artistic and literary glory, give me the bullet points of what happens, and know you’ll get back to it to fill it in later.
When you’ve got that glorious first draft, that’s great, but the job is only beginning. Be ready to work on those lines and scenes 70 times if that is what it takes to get it right, and find beta readers who can give honest feedback and fill in your gaps. Want to write an action scene but never held a gun? Just do your best and then find someone with that experience to help you get the weight right later. Rewrite and revise until you’re ready (or have) to let it go. I had to let Amos go in 2022 because the translator and publisher were hungry for it. I could have written it for 3 more years, and it would have been a better English book, but I had to take the chance that I did when I did it, and we’re still cleaning up typos here and there, but the editors did a great job and I think it’s a lovely story. I want the next one to be 1000% better, so I’ll keep pushing myself harder to learn and grow. Lastly, if you write for everyone, you’re writing for no one, so consider your audience. Picture someone and tell the story as you want them to hear it.
In the end, what I learned from my diaries/nonfiction trilogy, The Invisible War, and replicated with Amos and other books going forward, is the difference between a hobby writer with a draft on their shelf and a published writer with thousands of copies sold is a mindset. As Stephen Pressfield so eloquently says, if you want to go pro, you’ve got to act pro. It’s about not giving up when you get to the end but pushing on harder than you’ve ever pushed before. They call them book babies for a reason and it is labor – but it’s a labor of love. Treat it like it matters and needs to be born for the world, and you’ll get it done.
The first one is the hardest. You’re proving to yourself and to the world that you are a writer and you have at least one good book in you. It gets easier after that. You have a roadmap, you’ve done it before, and you just have to do it again. Don’t worry about being a genius, don’t worry about anything, just do your best, show up to the desk and write and welcome the muses when they come. If you write a bum book, maybe you just had a bum muse. Write another one. They’ll get better, and so will you.
If I could leave you with one final idea, it’s the duality of this: Writing is Magic. You are sharing your mind and yourself with the world, and if you do it well, people who aren’t even alive yet will spend time with you in close communion years after you’re dead. But writing isn’t magic. It’s a job, and it’s hard work. And you may dream of being a writer, but until you show up at your desk every day and make the time to get your books done and meet your muses halfway, you are robbing yourself and the world of your potential. So get to it, and show us what you’ve got.
Thanks so much for your time! Really appreciate speaking with you and hope your readers get something out of this.
With warm regards and twinkly toes, as we spin purposely about on a beautiful blue ball through the endless vast emptiness for what seems like an awfully long time,
Editor’s Note from Alex: During our numerous online conversations and throughout the interview, Jorah shared meaningful insight on the challenges he faced growing up and the sense of ennui he felt numerous times in his life. I believe these are feelings we can all relate to as human beings, and having struggled with mental health myself, I’d like to share links to two UK charities very close to my heart, in the hope they might help if you too feel overwhelmed.
Mosaic LGBT + Young Person Trust | A charity aiming to support, educate and inspire young LGBT+ persons and those around them by providing accessible activities, programmes and services (including counselling) to empower community members, provide essential resources, advocate for young LGBT+ rights, and embrace, promote and endorse the diversity of young persons.
Mind UK | A charity fighting mental health, ‘for support for respect, for you’. Mind operates in England and Wales, supporting minds and making mental health an everyday priority. It offers help through information, advice and local services and brings together a network of individuals and communities – people who care about mental health to make a difference.
Extra-ordinary lives do not come by every day. When Jorah got in touch at the beginning of the year, his was “just another query”. However, here at Not for Vanity we have the very bad habit to always look beneath the surface. Fascinated by what we discovered, this feature was born.
In this two-part interview, Canadian author Jorah Kai talks about his life and his work as a writer. As the story unfolds, he tells us how ‘the gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson of the ’90s dance music scene took a job at Chinese Harvard and traded a couple hours a day lecturing to international students for the time and space to sit and think, work on my hobbies, decompress from the stress of decades of touring, and eventually get to work writing the books I wanted to write’. We hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as we did.
Hi Jorah, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. Having looked at your bio on your website, it seems to me you’ve already lived a thousand lives… Can you introduce yourself to our audience? Who is Jorah Kai?
Hi Alex, nice to meet you. First off, thanks so much for asking me to do this interview. Writing is often a lonely grind, and the gratification of sharing your work is delayed immeasurably compared to music or visual arts. Whenever someone wants to know about a writer’s work, an angel gets their wings. Please call me Kai if you like; most of my friends do, and I must say, you’ve asked me a question that’s got me utterly stumped, which has only happened a couple of times in my life. I must have stared at this question for a week before I blinked, but I will do my best to answer so profound a question as who I am; please forgive me if I do it poorly.
As the caterpillar said to Alice, “Who are you?” I’ve spent my life trying to figure that question out. As a young lad, I wanted to be a writer, and somebody told me to write what I knew. Knowing I knew very little, I set out to experience everything I could … 1000 lifetimes indeed. I’ve had every odd job under the sun. I became something of a social chameleon. As a child, I spent a year at a tough urban primary school, telling jokes to older boys and girls who had me in the hospital several times with pencils and other sharp objects shoved in places where you shouldn’t put pencils. I was funny, I swear. The next September, my mom’s friend encouraged her to apply for a scholarship. I entered a prestigious Hebrew private school (I wasn’t Jewish, which makes it all the more absurd) across the street called Hillel academy. I remember they gave me a new name in the cloakroom before they pushed me out on stage into the grade 1 class: Noah Ross, named after the man who built a boat to save humanity. No pressure.
I think I’ve spent a lifetime trying to live up to that name, which had nothing to do with me (years later, when I was hosting events and building warm artistic communities and arks in cold concrete jungles, the theme haunted me). Then they introduced me, and I tried to learn a whole new alphabet. I think I had a mental breakdown about three months in, a total identity crisis, and returned to the tough urban school for the rest of the year. I remember the highlight of Hebrew private school was the tuna fish sandwiches, and they would cut the crusts off, which should surprise no one with even a rudimentary knowledge of their practices. No, I was not Jewish, but it was a primer in playacting. I returned to the tough school and told a joke in class that got a pencil so far up my nose I think my brain was bleeding. A supply teacher told my parents that I would probably thrive better if I could get transferred to the school up the hill, and surprisingly, that worked out. My new best friends were the son of a government minister and the stepson of the president of South Africa – and this was a year before he stepped down to support Nelson Mandela. On a trip to old Quebec City, I gave that boy a bag of gummy bears that impressed him so much that through the butterfly effect, I wonder how much weight those candies had on the history of that country and the legacy of apartheid. Regardless, I had seen three very different worlds and imagined different futures, all before I was six years old.
As a teenager, I got into role-playing games with much older kids and then into electronic music – back then, it was called the ‘rave’ scene. That community was really wild for its beauty and tragedy, and diversity. I met orks, goblins, fairies, movie stars, poets, and gangsters. Tom Greene tried to steal my girlfriend once, and the entire dancefloor of a club I was DJing at, live on MTV and then Drew Barrymore danced with me under the pale moonlight, and Harrison Ford gave my date his best rascally grin, but we laughed and ran away and danced in the dark until dawn. For a Canadian boy from a small town, it was a lot to take, but it was just life. It happened.
Who am I? In the end, I’m anyone, I’m everyone, I’m no one. I would like to say I’m noble because I’m made of stars, and I’m humble because I’m made of earth. I guess I’m just a guy with many stories, from many different places, over the years.
Was that a dodge? I didn’t mean it to be. I’ll try to be more specific. I’ve been a gamer nerd, a goth teenager, and a hip-hop DJ in a rising group, making records and breaking bridges as we went. In an incarnation that lasted for decades, I was a touring music producer and DJ for a bass music group that headlined major festivals and played multiple Olympics for leaders of the world and millions on TV. I DJ’d for the Queen of England, at least legally, and fire breathed for 10,000 people with eyes like saucers and shut down Toronto’s Dundas Square with a pirate renegade float during the art night Nuit Blanche dressed as pirates with my childhood friend (bass music superstar) ill.Gates, and then we did it like ten more years in a row – with the help of friends that do events like ‘world’s largest light sword battle’ and got sued by Disney and ‘world’s largest pillow fight’ – at a time when it felt safe for Alec Baldwin to rage tweet at you that you were ruining New York. Oh, we were summer children. I ran a studio with ill.Gates, and he’d go hang with Bill Gates at Sundance and come back, and we’d have ringtones to make to sell to the big guy, and when he passed on some of the pretty ones, we wrote fart tones and silence for big bucks. One night Gates and I were hanging out with Bassnectar (when that was still cool) and Skrillex at Shambhala, and this guy in a Squirrlex costume stalked us – he claimed to be after Sonny’s nuts. One day I visited a friend to play chess and drink tea, and a dozen gang bangers showed up to rob him. Wrong place, right time, but I got the leader in a small room (there was a debate as to who was trapped in there with whom), found two claw hammers in a drawer, and used a combination of intense eye contact, logic, and philosophy to make a compelling case for them to leave right away and never come back. Or the time I accidentally dated a gangster who got kidnapped by movie stars and escaped from an evil billionaire on an island fortress surrounded by sharks. Because that’s a real risk if you stay out too late.
I shake my head, thinking about these things. None of them sound real, but they happened, and a lot more, and that was really interesting, at least until it wasn’t. Life was sensorily thrilling for the most part. So much so that I suffered bouts of depression when I wasn’t on stage rocking a million-dollar sound system because if that was normal, then anything else was dreadfully boring. Luckily, I found mindfulness, stoic philosophy, and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy- not the one you get from the dominatrix). The journey led me to some near-death experiences in some extremely inhospitable surroundings. One day I was a 15-year-old kid in grade 9 math, and then I went dancing and never came home. Suddenly I was a plucky teen DJ that had to face down thugs and gangsters in Brooklyn, NYC, to get my gas money home to Canada. I was a freelance event runner that had to face off with biker gangs and organized crime that tried to profit off my hobby of making dance spaces magical. All before I was 18 years old. In the heart of the black rock desert, I embraced a dream to become a detective, focusing on existential mysteries. I tried being a clown, doing stand-up comedy, and hosting burlesque and Weimar-era-themed cabaret events. It was a lot, and I met many interesting people from all walks of life and listened to their stories.
When I felt I’d discovered all I could in the Western world, I went East and started over with a new life in the secret cyberpunk megacity of Asia- Chongqing, China. And I’ve found new things to learn, experience and write about. Oscar Wilde said, ‘there is no such thing as good and evil people, just charming and tedious ones.’ My life in China has been full of surprises that I could never have imagined, and it continues to astound me utterly on a regular basis. I live in a near-constant state of agitated confusion. Creatively, it’s very helpful. For the past decade, I’ve been a professor in residence, newspaperman, editor, and professional writer. I became a ‘COVID guru’ and got to hang out with Jeanne-Claude Van Damme as we tried to rebuild society together, and came very close to recording an anthem for staying home with Justin Bieber, but in the end, it didn’t click. My life is extremely bizarre and has become increasingly absurd, but I have succeeded in knowing a few things, and most of it has not been boring.
You are originally from Canada, but you’ve now been living in China for years. Tell us a bit more about your life as an ex-pat and moving to a new country: was it a total cultural shock or love at first sight?
I think it was both. Let me set a scene: I left Toronto in 2014. Within 24 hours, I graduated from a teaching program, said goodbye to my family, and moved a van of some belongings out of my apartment (and into storage with my family), hosted a huge circus and burlesque event that 1000 artists, friends and creatives showed up at and we danced until dawn. I came home and realized that I’d left my fancy designer bathrobe and pair of handmade boots – gifts from a good friend – on the back of my door, shoved them into my suitcase, left the key under the mat and became, legally homeless, and hopped in a cab to catch a flight to Beijing. My suitcase was overweight, so I had to wear a handmade pair of gold lame boots and a fluffy blue bathrobe, wearing Elvis glasses while I drank mimosas all the way to Beijing (I was that guy). We landed 12 hours later, and I washed my face, and was driven to a welcome feast where my host tried to drink me under the table in traditional Chinese greeting culture. When that finished, our team, a group of Canadian teachers, was shuttled to a KTV hall to experience Beijing by night until about 5 am, where we were dropped back at our hotels and told to get a good hour or two of sleep before we spent the day walking the Great Wall of China. I ended up wearing some sort of Song Dynasty armor cosplay and made a lot of friends that day. That was just the speed of China, it took the chaos of my life in Toronto and just amplified it, and it was a mile a minute. Every meal was a ludicrous feast, and every day was a tour of an ancient wonder, and I was gobsmacked and in love with it but utterly confused and didn’t understand a thing.
Nearly a decade later, I’d say I managed to get a better sleep schedule figured out, mainly thanks to my wife, whom I met in Chongqing. Xiaolin is my rock and my compass, and my love. But we are absolutely different in many incredible ways. My friends were shocked to hear I finally got married. They never thought I’d find ‘the one.’ I dated poets and artists, designers and models, CEOs and actresses, teachers and gangsters, wrestlers, suicide girls, dancers, and dominatrixes, but when I moved to China, I knew she was the one. Xiaolin – or my Shaolin – has the comedic genius of Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), the profound wisdom of Yoda, and the sex appeal of a mid-90’s Tia Carerre to my Mike Myers’ Wayne’s world. Can you say Shwiiing?
I’ve learned so much about myself and the world in a decade overseas, but I am still generally confused about nearly everything. I’ve learned to let go. Let go of the need to control my life, let go of fear and anxiety, and just be happy with the day I have and try to make it a good one. I’ve finally built a quieter life here in China, amongst the chaos, and it’s let me publish seven books since 2020, and I have a few more drafts that I’d like to see published in the next year or two as well if life is kind and I am lucky.
Sometimes I wonder about my decision to leave Canada, even the western world, and end up literally about as far as a human can go without coming back to the other side or leaving the planet, on a mountain in southwest China, in the world’s biggest municipality of 35 million, in a secret cyberpunk supercity, rainy, foggy, or, usually swelteringly hot.
Then I read pieces about the struggles of paying the bills in the west and remember why the opportunity had seemed so exciting. In a world of gig economies, it was a full-time job with benefits and time off to write. A chance at a fresh start to live my dream of writing piles of books without distractions. It was a free house, on campus, at a time when housing was getting harder to obtain. A decade later, it looks like none of those problems back home have improved, but my life in China has grown immeasurably. An artist who struggled to pay rent has become a landlord (I rent a place to a single tenant, but that counts, doesn’t it?). We’ve got a new writing retreat by the ocean paid off with lots of hard work and savings (a formerly very foreign concept to me), I’m excited to spend time writing new books while my wife paints by the sea. It sounds like the dream I had at 12, writing with my toes in the sand, laptop chugging away, books happening.
Sometimes, if you listen, your brain will propose radical solutions to what feels like insurmountable problems. How far will you go?
Not for Vanity focuses primarily on English and American audiences, so we are curious… What’s the public’s approach to books and reading in China? Any interesting facts you could share?
The Chinese love to read, but the market for English books is quite small by comparison with Chinese novels. My Chinese is not great, but my works have been translated, which has been really interesting. I mean I live in a city that is the population of Canada. Making it big in a country of 1.4 billion people is a whole other level of success, and so far it’s going pretty well. It’s been incredibly supportive to work here. I sort of lucked into one good situation after another. My latest novel, Amos the Amazing, is a fantasy book through and through but also a solarpunk fantasy novel, and it’s due to come out this year with a huge Chinese publisher that did incredible things with Cixin Liu’s ‘Three-Body Problem,’ so, fingers crossed, it could become quite successful here. Local media heard about it and I just wrapped filming of a pilot TV show where I explore solarpunk stuff around China and check out ancient culture and I have no idea what’s going to happen with that but it will surely help promote the book. I plan to write more in this world and would love to see it adapted to film. I think there’s a great market in China for local content. They love western books and movies too, so sort of doing a hybrid, a ‘Chinese Harry Potter meets Alice in Wonderland’ kind of thing that shows off and explores China, and combines Western and Eastern myths and legends, magic and fantasy, science fiction and the dreams of a solarpunk green energy revolution, well, it’s all quite exciting. It takes the edge of my existential ennui. It’s always good to have hope.
In May 2020 you published your first book ‘Kai’s Diary: A Canadian’s COVID-19 Days in Chongqing’. What made you decide to put pen to paper and tell your story? How did it feel to be the unwilling pioneer of a new “Covid Life” nobody knew how to handle back then?
It was terrifying. As a poet, I took the pandemic extremely seriously, almost comically so. I washed my hands and masked like it was performance art, like the way Jim Carrey did Andy Kaufman. And it was mostly scary that after spending 30 years studying creative writing and taking classes and drafting outlines, I might die with a few binders of unpublished books and never know if I had the stuff to really make a mark as a storyteller. That was my ‘Snows of Kilimanjaro (Hemingway)’ moment, where he lies around dreaming of all the travels he never wrote, of all the novels he had in his belly that he was saving for later but would never live to write. It put a fire under my butt, and I got to writing whatever stories I could… first, a diary about the very scary and new situation I encountered, plus vignettes and dreams and a bit of what felt like ‘time traveling.’
There was a lot of scientific speculation and then as my ‘diary’ unfolded over the 3 years, became much more philosophical. I published the first 60 days with a huge Chinese traditional publisher, in English and Chinese, and it became a nonfiction bestseller here, won some awards and was voted a ‘top novel in China for 2020’ by some publishing agencies. I was astounded. Here, I had heard there wasn’t ‘free speech’ in China. Still, here I was, publishing an internationally syndicated column in Canadian and Chinese news, sharing my gripes and griefs and shower thoughts, data, fears and projections. I was winning awards from Journalist Associations and accolades from the local government and the foreign affairs office for my ‘good work during a crisis.’ It was quite encouraging, and I got to writing my fantasy novel and decided to keep the fire burning, to see how many books I could get done in this short lifelike dream that has been gifted to me, one day at a time.
‘Kai’s Diary’ was hugely successful and published both in English and Chinese: what happened next?
As the pandemic spread, I curated blogs from friends around the world to continue this journey as a book, Year of the Rat. Rats are funny, in Asia they’re seen as clever and smart, in the west they’re dirty and plague carriers. This curious Yin and Yang really interested me, as so many things do when you have one foot on each side of the world and exist in a totally alien culture that becomes more ‘normal’ to you than the country you came from. The year 2020 hit very differently worldwide, and it was very interesting to document all the different responses, thoughts, fears and ideas, for posterity. That book is about 800 pages, quite a tome. While my friends and family were in their own lockdowns in Canada and the US, Europe and Africa, I became a published author, was doing regular media appearances, and even met my childhood hero, martial arts movie star Jeanne-Claude Van Damme at a COVID recovery event – and included some of his thoughts in Year of the Rat. It was all very surreal. By 2021-2022, as the Chinese COVID-0 plan meant months of ongoing lockdowns whenever cases became outbreaks in my city, I kept writing (essays, a media column, my fantasy novel, other drafts, and these philosophical books), and the third book in that trilogy, what I call the Invisible War trilogy, Aye of the Tiger, is almost absurd, a little Albert Camus, in my own way, but it was all me walking myself through a tough conversation. I read this great James Baldwin quote about what a shame it is that most of humanity does all it can to ignore the only simple truth of life: that we will all die. So I asked, what does it mean to realize we might soon die? Does it hit differently when your dreams are not yet realized versus when your bucket list is complete? Over the course of the three years, I went from being unpublished to having seven books out, in multiple languages, a couple of which became best sellers in their own niche genres. I had won awards, was a regular on TV and guest at some pretty heavy conventions hanging out with former presidents and movie stars. These diaries – well I don’t expect them, as a new trilogy to become a best seller for a decade, unless Amos becomes the new Game of Thrones and even then. The others I just put out I think for posterity. I don’t imagine many people want to read about COVID yet. Still, in 5 or 10 years, it might be a welcome look back at a special, very strange time in our lives. For me, it was a transformative period, where I looked death in the face and realized, if I’m going to die soon, I’m going to do my best to realize my dreams, to write, to travel again, to help others, to make amends and conquer fears and make peace with myself and my family. I haven’t been back to Canada in five years, and I’m not sure when I will see them again, but my dad has every one of my books on his shelf, and it means something to me that I can leave behind that legacy, no matter what the future holds. In the end, every one of us dies, but as Shakespeare cleverly wrote in Sonnet 18, his most famous love poem: ‘But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’ Writing is a kind of magic, like a twinning of souls. The fact that we can pick up books and sit with dead writers of many ages, and feel their ideas come to life again in our minds truly is magic. And if I work hard enough, I’ll write something that will sit next to their books on the shelf of a boy or girl that I can hopefully inspire, just as their books inspired me.
Clint, the author of “My names Marcia” talks about another of his books, “Art school blues”
CAN WE START WITH THE SYNOPSIS OF YOUR BOOK?
Dora Roberts is the new kid at Crestwood School of the Arts. She’s the artist with a quick wit and a quicker mouth. All she wants is to find her way and make a few friends. Benji Carmichael is the weird kid, the girl with a boy’s name and short blue hair. All she wants is to play her trumpet and avoid the bullies that are determined to torment her.
Neither of them is looking for love, But sometimes love finds you. This is the story of two teenage girls finding themselves, finding each other, falling in love and falling apart.
This is Art School Blues.
WHAT ARE YOUR BOOK’S UPSs? WHY SHOULD READERS PICK YOUR BOOK OVER SOMEONE ELSE’S?
All of my books feature LGBTQ+ characters and storylines, and that’s by design. As a parent of LGBTQ+ kids, and a teacher at an inner city school of the arts, I go out of my way to write books that are inclusive, thought-provoking, powerful, and meaningful. At the same time, I’m most known for creating stories with complex characters that stay with you long after you turn the last page, and for using dialogue and situations that make my readers laugh out loud and bring them to tears. Sometimes, I’ve been told, in the same chapter. Art School Blues is my eighth self-published YA novel and is written as a love letter to anyone who has ever felt lost, unsure, misunderstood, or has looked for a place to belong. It deals with love and friendship, grief and loss, joy and heartbreak. If you’re looking for a book that’s emotional, romantic, and heartbreaking right up until the very last page, this is the book for you.
TELL US A BIT MORE ABOUT YOUR
I have taught high school video production and English for over twenty years. I live outside of Detroit with my loving wife, four wonderful kids, and a sweet little Shih Zhu. I am a proud advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and the author of eight YA novels, including the acclaimed “Marcia” series. Art School Blues is my second stand-alone novel.
ARE YOU ON SOCIAL MEDIA? WHERE CAN OUR READERS FOLLOW YOU?
A paranormal thriller by JP McLean (Dark Dreams Series, Book One)
Jane Walker is a young, strong and independent woman. She had an unfortunate childhood, though: her birth parents abandoned her, the first adoptive family she ended up with died in a tragic accident, the same happened to the second one. These two tragic events and the fact that Jane has a port-wine stain covering good part of her body and face compromised any further possibility for Jane to have an adoptive family, and she ended up in foster care.
During her childhood, and while in the system, she meets Sadie, a girl her age that immediately becomes her best friend. Sadie doesn’t think Jane is cursed and doesn’t care about Jane’s birthmark, but Jane is very conscious of it, she calls it her shame, and she wishes for it to disappear.
As if her life wasn’t already complicated enough, Jane is also affected by narcolepsy and when it happens, she is out cold, as good as dead. A bomb could hit her house and she wouldn’t notice. Sadie knows about it, and she is very protective of her friend. During these episodes Jane has weird dreams: they look like visions, a reel of events that happened in real life, but not to her. She doesn’t know the people she dreams of, she’s never met them, or, if she did, it was a brief, casual encounter with no meaning to her. These dreams are weird and usually leave Jane confused and more tired than before, but she accepts this condition as something she has no power over. Lately she is dreaming of Rebecca, a girl around her age, who seems to be under a lot of stress: she is narcoleptic too, she has weird dreams too, she attempted suicide to make them stop and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. While there, she started to see a doctor who seemed to help a bit. Jane is keen on knowing more about him: if he helped Rebecca, he might be able to help her too. But she must be patient: she can’t control her dreams, simply deciding she will have one, nor she can control the length of them, or how much she can actually see, like names or places. She can only hope.
Jane is not only her bad dreams and her tragic childhood: as an adult, she works in a plant nursery and one day her boss asks her to deliver some flowers to this university professor’s office. No problem, says Jane. She enters Nathaniel Crawford’s office like she would have entered any other place. Only to come face to face with some pictures of her birthmarks framed and well visible on the wall, for everyone to see.
Jane feels threatened and violated. Who is this guy? Why does he have pictures of her birthmarks? Is he some kind of pervert? Is she in danger?
All Jane wants is to talk to Sadie about it, but Sadie is busy with her own life. During the day she works as a waitress at a local restaurant, but to make some extra cash she takes the odd gig from Cynthia, a mistress she has been working with for a while. For the past three years, Sadie has been seeing a certain Doctor Kristan as part of this job. Doctor Kristan is very keen, almost desperate, to buy her out of the market, but as much as Sadie thinks that would be nice, she also likes the extra cash. And Cynthia would not let her off the hook so easily. And while Sadie doesn’t want to talk about it to Jane – too ashamed by the nature of her job to ask for opinions – Jane is busy making sense of this Nathaniel Crawford that told her that her birthmarks might be something else rather than port-win stains, that there might be a remedy.
There is another character intersecting the story, even if his connection to the events is not straightforward. His name is Dr Rick Atkins, we know he has applied for a top managerial position in the hospital where he works and he’s waiting for an answer, he has a bigger brother, Mickey, the joy of their parents and his constant basis of comparison despite Mickey’s many mistakes. Rick is ready to show them all: he will get the promotion, prove he is not an idiot and finally fix a mistake he made 24 years ago. We won’t know what until the end of the book.
In the meanwhile, Jane accepts to be seen by a specialist, a friend of Nathaniel. She might help her to get rid of the birthmark.
Showing anyone her marks was a rare event, but Jane found she didn’t mind in this instance, even if Ariane was stretching the definition of plausible. She pushed the scarf into her hair and studied Ariane’s reaction.
Ariane moved closer.
“Fascinating,” she said. “May I?” She raised her hand. Jane shrugged. Nate stood to get a better look. Ariane’s touch was light, her fingers cool. “Exquisite.”
“That’s a first. People aren’t usually so complimentary.”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“That’s puzzling,” Ariane said. “Because my theory is that your parents arranged for the mark to be placed on you. To protect you.”
“Protect me?” Jane’s laugh came out in a derisive sputter. “Then my marks must be defective. I could have used some of that mojo growing up. Took more than a few beatings. Don’t suppose there’s a return policy?”
Ariane hid a smile. “It can’t be easy living with those marks. But they’re intended to ward off death, not prevent bumps and scrapes.”
Sadie shifted to the edge of her seat. “What did you say?”
“The markings protect her life.”
Until the birthmarks start to disappear.
In this captivating urban fantasy, McLean superbly ties together past and present events, magical elements, real life threats, and the evergreen debate of how changing something in the past during a time-travel may have an unknown repercussion on the present as we know it.
The plot is brilliant: complex but well managed by the author, who knows where the characters are at any given time where, what they are doing and why. There isn’t a single event out of check. Veil after veil, the plot is slowly uncovered and exposed, but in a majestic non-expositional manner, meaning the deus-ex-machina represented by the narrator or writer is very well hidden throughout.
The prose is neat, clear, fresh and well-paced, never a dull description or a useless adjective. It builds up until the reader finds out who Rick Atkins is and what he wants. The only flaw, if we were to be very picky, is the tension build-up: McLean could have perhaps pushed even more and let the mystery unravel at the end with a big bang instead of a very loud pop.
It still works great anyway, making the book a “I-need-to-reach-the-end-quickly” read. We guarantee it will keep you with your nose stuck to the page until the very end.
In conversation with the author of ‘The Daughters of Pendle’
Hi Darcy! It’s a pleasure to have you with us! Let’s start with your book, The Daughters of Pendle. There is a brief intro dated 1564, where we witness a terrible practice of the past: witch hunting. It wasn’t one of the most enlightening moments of humankind, let’s be honest. And still, you decided to use it as the pivotal point of your book. Can you tell us why?
That short prologue was a very late addition to the story. I had received notes from an American beta reader who never heard of Pendle or its history, and suggested filling in some of the background by adding historical information. I decided a direct prologue would be more effective. It enabled me to ground the story historically and geographically, and it gave me a chance to give one of the main characters some foundation.
I think that dark period in history is evocative for a lot of different reasons: apart from the very serious abuses and crimes against innocent women (and some men), it was also a time of social control and abuse. It’s a subject which deserves a degree of sensitivity, and despite my effort to create a fun, though dark adventure, I wanted to be respectful. I asked a friend, who is also a practicing witch, if she would give the story a sensitivity pass, as I didn’t want to trample on anyone’s belief system or practices. Being a fun, horror story, she was more than happy with the approach I have taken throughout the tale.
You made an unusual and bold choice when it comes to characters dialogues, i.e. they resemble a film script but lack the genre-specific formatting and economy. This may make the book challenging to read for some. Can you tell uswhy you opted for this format?
It’s actually been mentioned a few times. I think it ultimately comes down to me not being a writer. I did a Film and Animation degree in my late twenties; as I was only prepping and creating storyboards and scripts for my own use, I developed a hybrid approach, which is pretty much what you see in the book. Also, when I started making notes and plotting this story twenty odd years ago, I didn’t know if I’d ever finish. I certainly never considered I would find or need a publisher, so I continued in the style I was comfortable with.
It hasn’t been a belligerent decision though; my developmental editor suggested I changed it to the more standard format. I tried on a few chapters, but I couldn’t make them flow in the same way. At her suggestion, I decided to get feedback and started to engage with beta readers, who are invaluable by the way (thank you!) and had no negative feedback about the formatting from anyone who read it.
I also sell the book in a local, new-age spirituality shop in my hometown, (it’s the perfect audience for the story) and I have been told by the owner that most of the people who buy it have already flicked through it, so I think if readers are aware, it doesn’t pose too much of a problem. Similarly, the ‘look inside’ feature on Amazon should prepare potential readers. If I ever start getting a lot of negative reviews, I might reconsider my position.
The storyline seems to leave some questions unanswered at the end – for example who is the circle of old ladies, or what happened to the cult? I came to think that this was the product of a very specific choice you made. Perhaps it’s because you are already planning a second book in the series?
Most definitely, but initially, when this was going to be a one-off, I was trying to create the same feeling as the one experienced by the main characters: they are somewhat unprepared and ignorant to what is going on around them. I felt withholding the answers to those questions added to that sense of bewilderment.
After planning and plotting more separate adventures, I realised that with minimal tinkering I could tie them all together, and now I have three more instalments which grow in scope as the story progresses, and dip into the past and the future of the different groups of characters.
There are some wonderful images at the opening and closing of each chapter. Who made them and why did you decide to use them for a book that targets adult readers?
Thank you. I created all the artwork in the book except for the cover painting, AWalk in the Woods, which is by the brilliant Lynda Jones. It has never crossed my mind that I couldn’t or shouldn’t have images. I’m so visually-driven that I wanted to recreate the pictures I have in my mind for the reader, and my main purpose in adding images was to enhance the compelling atmosphere that already comes from words alone.
I’ve researched the internet quite extensively, but there is no info whatsoever about you. Can you guide the readers into your world? Tell us about how you decided to start writing, why did you choose self-publishing instead of a traditional approach, if you wrote other things beside The Daughters of Pendle, and, if so, where can we find them?
I’ve come to writing relatively late, I think, though since my early twenties I have always made notes and jotted down characters or plotted stories. I’m inspired by anything that excites me and a lot continues to resonate from when I was a kid: Jasonand the Argonauts being on TV at Christmas was one of the highlights of the year! Doctor Who and the sci-fi/adventure comic 2000AD both became staples as I got older. I also remember watching a few films that I probably shouldn’t have at that age, lots of Hammer Horror for instance, and the ones that have stuck with me are those with devastating endings. She, from the H. Rider Haggard novel, The Wicker Man by Robert Hardy, and later, Withnail and I, have all left indelible marks on my psyche and undoubtedly influenced my writing.
I decided to self-publish because approaching publishers was never really on the agenda. Also, because the self-publishing business model has changed massively since its beginnings, and it’s now more approachable and profitable.
My lack of presence on the internet is something I know needs to be addressed, especially now that I’m trying to gain interest around this story. I use Facebook, and many of the groups I’m a member of helped me to finish and then publish the book.
The only other examples of my writing that exist are the films I made while at university 1997-1999. The first, a one-minute, expressionist metaphor, ‘Greed’ and my final year film, a five-minute, downbeat, realist psychodrama, called, ‘Keep Out‘. I’m still quite proud of these two.
Last but not least: any plans for the future?
As well as trying to bring the sequels to The Daughters of Pendle to print, I’m also plotting out a one-off horror adventure, called The Victorian Monster Hunters Club which is turning into a lot of fun. And being a frustrated filmmaker I have started producing mock-up film posters for my stories, with the secret hope that, one day, I will turn my stories into movies.
It’s a tepid night at the end of summer when Marci Torres, who prefers to be referred to as Marcia, and bestie Charlie are on the fifty-yard line of their high school football field and Marcia comes out as gay. She expects hell to break loose, but Charlie, as the best friend she really is, dismisses Marcia’s words by simply saying she already knew.
Marcia feels lighter, since she can finally share her love crushes with Charlie. There is this girl, Shannon Palmer, who plays in the same softball team as Marcia, and also runs the Bible Study Club. Even if Marcia is not a fervent Catholic, she decides to join the club to get to know Shannon better. However, during one of the group meetings Marcia has an altercation with another girl, Ashley. Contrary to Marcia and Shannon, Ashley is very strict on the interpretation of the Bible: it says nowhere that it’s ok to be gay, and it doesn’t matter if present times are different from the times the Bible was written. This confrontation is so cruel that Marcia is brought to tears and runs away, hiding in the toilet. Shannon follows her and calms her down changing topic: they have a softball match coming up in the next few days and Shannon promises that, if they win, the two of them will go out for an ice cream.
They do win the match and Shannon, faithful to her word, meets Marcia for an ice cream, specifying it’s not a date. If Marcia invited her to the freshmen ball, then that would be a date. Marcia dutifully records the message. They chat almost about everything and eventually Shannon opens up about how hard it is for her to live at home with her father, who is deeply religious and a high achiever, and has great ambitions for his daughter. He is constantly beating her up verbally, saying that she can’t do anything, that her efforts are not enough, and this constantly leaves Shannon in a dark place. Marcia feels for her. It’s clear that, in such environment, being gay is just not an option. The whole conversation becomes a ‘please be patient with me, give me some time, don’t be pushy but don’t ignore me’.
Talking to Charlie, Marcia finds out there is no freshmen ball: only junior and senior students will be allowed. Marcia marches to Mrs Williams, the students’ counsellor, explains her situation and she is told that, to promote one, the motion must come from the student council. The elections for representatives are running at the end of the month and Marcia puts herself forward as a candidate. The only problem is she will be running against Ashley. It’s clear from the first day that Ashley is not ready to lose, and she is willing to go the extra mile to make it happen: on Monday morning Marcia finds herself slandered all over social media. It’s a hard blow but it will make Marcia cross paths with Patience Lancaster, who defines herself a ‘sort of a fan’. Patience tell Marcia that her and all her friends hate Ashley too. It gives her the strength to continue her battle to become the next students’ representative.
Speech day comes and both candidates take the podium, but while Ashley’s speech sounds very ‘political’, Marcia’s speech is honest, powerful and most of all, proud. After the longest second of her life, Marcia is mesmerised by a long and loud standing ovation. It’s clear who will win.
But the happy ending is nowhere near.
This is, at a first glance, an unassuming book: the target audience are teenagers, and even though there may be a few repetitions (for example, Shannon is told at least twice that Marcia and Charlie are besties, and the fact that Ashley and Shannon behave politely around each other because their parents are part of the same church is reiterated a number of times), it’s far from being an easy to digest book.
The number of themes discussed is simply astonishing: self-discovery, self-acceptance, coming out, parents-sons relationship, the role of religion in personal lives and choices, domestic sexual abuse, self-harm, attempted suicide, jealousy and conflict. In a light plot the author is able to condense in few, specific words the troubles, the fears, the delightful pains and the awkward happiness of being a teenager. Not only you are discovering yourself, but you are also discovering that you are different from what is expected of you and from the role models you have around, and you need to accept it and deal with it because there is nothing else you can do, even if the only thing you want is to belong, to anything, anywhere, and stop feeling lost and alone. All this narrated with no drama, no judgment, and a lot of hope.
It’s rare to find books so powerful, so well written, with such a beautiful message and self-published. It’s a welcome surprise we want to read more of and will never grow tired of.
‘My name is Marcia’ is book one of a four book series. All other novels by Clint Chico are available at: https://amzn.to/3LdVVXr
“I lived in a cult, but I ain’t no victim. Now I use my experience to create my character.”
It was a dark Sunday at the end of January, not yet evening but already dark. You know, one of those depressing winter days in England, where daylight seems a distant memory and the sun a rude joke. I was working on taking my lazy multitasking to the next level – meaning: sitting on the sofa in the same position for at least four hours, watching TV with one eye and surfing social media with the other, pretending I am working on notforvanity.com – when something popped up in my Twitter feed. A guy, named Jonathan Cerruto – an Italian surname, maybe New York? I asked myself – shares a tweet. I thought it was one of those ‘shameless self-promo’ hashtags meant to help fellow authors but, most of the times, only end up in likes and retweets. This one, though, felt different, genuine for once: Jonathan’s words were along the lines of ‘hi guys, l am a writer too and I know the struggles of getting something out there, so help me to help you. I’ll start: here’s my book. Have a look at it and I will have a look at yours.’
These were the words of a like-minded person, a perfect stranger who had a purpose similar to mine: helping others to succeed, instead of climbing on others’ shoulders for a brief second of elusive virtual celebrity. I followed him, he follow me back and we began to exchange DMs. The more we talked, the more we discovered we had things in common (we both were writers and, more broadly, artists, we both had lived in Italy, we both had studied in London, we both were trying to create our artistic path out there) and inevitably we grew close, sharing not only ideas and comments, but also comparing notes about personal life and past experiences.
‘My life has been a movie, a real rollercoaster of emotions with many ups and downs. I grew up in a cult, and in a very strict, physically and mentally, abusive family. I wasn’t allowed to have friends out of the that community, and for that I was heavily bullied by the other kids. I was not allowed to listen to certain types of music or follow any artistic inclinations.’
It’s a hard reality to admit and it’s probably harder to hear. But, as Jonathan pointed out, ‘I don’t want to look like a victim, because I am not.’ And he’s right. It wasn’t his choice, as it wasn’t our choice where we grew up, what we wore, what school we went to. Probably up to our mid-teenage years, if not later, we all had to agree to choices that weren’t ours and deal with the consequences, even if they were unfair.
‘Being part of the LGBTQ+ community is prohibited and punishable with the exclusion from the community, for the person but also for their family members, which is what happened to me.’
A common reaction to this amount of pressure is to find a way to let off some steam, a place that we can call our own, may it be a group of peers, gaming, playing a sport, sometimes even drugs. Other times the release is found in solitary activities, like reading, writing, listening to or playing music, painting.
‘Art has always been a gateway for me, a portal for me to ‘escape’ the place where I was. Since I was little, I used to create stories in my head and put them down on paper, write rhymes and express how I was feeling in those particular moments. Creating art has always kept me company and lifted my spirit in those dark moments. My happiest memories are of me being in an isolated place, listening to music and reading a book, or writing down my thoughts, hidden from everyone.’
I know this might be hard to digest for many social animals. But you need to understand we are not all social animals, and we are not social animals all the time. I, for example, like to spend time with friends and family, I am happy to go for a couple of drinks with my work colleagues after a rough day, but there are also times where I need to be totally alone with myself: no music or a very specific genre, no people, no WhatsApp chat, nothing. Not even my partner. Just me. It’s necessary to heal, to declutter, to regenerate, to breathe, to avoid going completely out of my mind. It makes me who I am, but it’s also a part of me, like an arm or a leg, a piece I can’t part from without being worse off after. It happens to everybody, but the opposite is also true: we need happy tunes, spending an hour over the phone with our bestie and being surrounded by a lot of people. One thing doesn’t exclude the other, as one reaction is not better than the other. They are different.
The same can be said about us. As artists, but also as human beings, we don’t have a single like or dislike, and we are not only interested in one thing or another, and in our personal scale of interests there isn’t one superior. Being a writer doesn’t mean I can’t be a chef too, or that I can’t learn how to play an instrument or climb a mountain. Or having a passion for fashion.
‘Fashion was one of the many passions that I have taught myself to escape from that toxic environment. I remember I used to hide under the living room table and draw gowns, clothing items and shoes on scrap paper. I couldn’t suppress those inclinations and once I turned 17 years old, I ran away and followed my dreams. I moved to Milan and got my degree in Fashion and Design. I created and designed four collections that I had the chance to showcase in London. Life was good and kind to me, but something was still missing.’
There are different reasons to escape. You might be bored. You might have reached breaking point. You might be truly, madly, deeply in love. Maybe it’s the need for a new adventure or the burning desire of new knowledge. But whatever the reason that sends you packing, there is one point in common: your deep desire to find a missing piece. You go away because your life is not complete maybe good, but not perfect. And you might realise it in so many different ways – you don’t want to leave the place you landed last week because the idea of not being there tears your soul, it might be yet another abusive comment making you say ‘enough is enough’ – but it will switch on in your head like a neon bulb. It’s always been there, it just never occurred to you up to that point. But when it does you’ll see your life under a completely different light.
“Three years ago,  I had some serious health issues, and I underwent surgery. That experience changed me completely. I promised myself that, from that moment on, I would move forward and respond to my real calling. My novels, like all my writing, come from a place of truth and real-life experience, and, of course, a lot of heart. My Joshua Bane series features, clearly, Joshua, who has been abandoned by his biological parents and grows up in an orphanage with his twin sister Ashely, in Russia. The siblings are separated when they are 7 and the memory of each other is erased by Her, an evil entity. He lives in an abusive environment, heavily bullied and mistreated by the nuns because of his peculiar features, he experiences depression, and has suicidal thoughts, but he’s finally adopted by a UK family. Things seem to take a turn for the best, but on a tragic day when Joshua is 16, he comes home from school to find his adopted parents brutally killed. The experience is so traumatic that awakens his magical skills and from this moment on he devotes his life and his skills to find out who killed his parents and find his twin sister. In the process he will fight monsters, face dark magic and most importantly, he will have to fight his inner demons, because despite he has a successful career, plenty of money and apparently whatever he wants in life, his twin is still missing and there seem to be no one in the world that loves him for who he really is. I wanted to share Joshua Bane’s story, this fantastic superhero, member of the LGBTQ+ community, who goes through a lot of challenges in his life for all the messages it carries. I envisioned Joshua’s character when I was only 12 years old, because I wanted to make people understand that there is always hope.”
What’s more powerful than a message of hope? Especially for all the voiceless kids out there. Like Jonathan himself, I have been an invisible person in my teenage years. I felt unheard, misunderstood, different, not belonging anywhere. I didn’t have an identity and I didn’t have the means or the words to express my distress. It was not only frustrating, but painful. I felt like there was no cure, I lived in a dark bubble of hate and desperation with no way out.
Except for music. There was a band that really helped me, Linkin Park. They became my voice, my anger, my frustration. They said what I couldn’t voice in front of millions of people, they expressed loud and clear what was going through my mind. But they also gave me hope. They were a bit older than me, but not so old to be my parents, and they made it. They went through my same path, and they reached the other side, somehow. Scarred, angry, ready to fight but alive. And if they made it, so could I.
“In my books I do mention specific songs to help the reader diving into the story. I want them to feel and visualise through the lyrics what a particular character is experiencing in that moment. That’s what makes it magical for me: music and books have the power to take your mind to places, near or far, imaginary or real, and they make you feel things without physically moving.”
One can be easily tricked into thinking that art, in any form, comes from the same spring. But it’s not like that.
“The lyrics business and the book business are two separate worlds. But, even though I apply two different methods, somehow one skill inspires the other. Music has such power over me. I can listen to a specific song and find inspiration to write the next scene in my book and vice versa: a specific scene or event I wrote in my books pops up in my mind and that can inspire a whole verse, the chorus, or a bridge for my lyrics. Joshua Bane has a very deep connection with music too, and I mentioned it. One of my many missions in life is to be able to combine the two worlds into one, create a sort of platform that allows the readers to read while listening to that specific soundtrack, like watching a movie on a page.”
A mission. A heroic quest of sorts, if you like.
“Having a dream is the hardest thing to have because it’s hard work, it requires patience and sacrifice, a lot of sacrifice. It can suck you dry; at times it leaves you in a worse place than where you started, and it can cut your spirit. That’s why, in my opinion, many people give up: because they expect to see results in a short time. And, let’s be honest, some of them are not willing to do the work, because they are too scared, or because they don’t think they are worthy. Then the frustration kicks in, and they simply throw the towel. Being an artist is a daily challenge and it takes time, but at the end you will be happy and live your days without regret. Otherwise, sooner or later, regret will knock at your door, and, at that point, it might be too late. One of my favourite mantras is ‘Time and pressure create the most precious diamonds’.
For those who are afraid of taking that leap of faith I would say: do it fearlessly. The hardest part is jump. Life is too short to not follow your dreams. We are incredible creatures, and our mind is magical. If we picture it in our mind, if we truly believe in it, we can do what we think is impossible. Trust the process, believe in yourself and work hard. Surround yourself with people that you truly love and love you back. I am very lucky to have a partner that supports me and lifts me up, but, even if that’s not your case, remember: love yourself. That’s the most important bit. Repeat it to yourself every single day, especially on those days when you don’t feel like it, trick your mind, fake it till you make it. Don’t listen to people’s opinions, listen to your heart, be kind to yourself first, then to others. And, as a last word of advice, be like a train, that moves only forward and never back.”
Because the past is a desolated land, it’s something to look at with curiosity, learn from its mistake and dispose of once its function is exhausted. The past is a land that doesn’t belong to us anymore, it’s a shadow on the wall, disappearing as soon as we turn the lights on.
In a Not for Vanity first, Nigerian author Akinola Peace discusses with us her debut novel ‘Beyond the Stain‘
CAN YOU GIVE US A SYNOPSIS OF YOUR BOOK?
This novel chronicles the life of Rose Adesewa Chukwuma, a young Nigerian novice who begins the early stage of her life on a bumpy ride. With her father’s mysterious death causing the first blow, her mother, a Yoruba woman following the strange widow’s rites of the Igbo tradition, was labeled a “witch”, called barren, and held accountable for the death of her own husband.
Both Rose and her mother, Folakemi, experience financial and psychological hardship as a result of these strange occurrences. Rose is left on her own to navigate life while Folakemi finds solace in her job and tries to manoeuvre her way through single parenthood. Twelve-year-old Rose, who has an absentee mother and a non-existent father, is quickly overcome by the acceptance and love she receives from the Soul Sisters’ clique. Only she was oblivious of the major reason why she was accepted by the pentagon members in the Soul Sisters’ clique.
As she wraps her arms around the clutches of Demola, the pink-lipped choir master and Yoruba demon; Fred, an internet fraudster she meets as a university chick at LASU; and Zaddy, her wealthy sugar daddy who is determined to make her his second wife, a young novice transforms into a powerful veteran who is unconcerned with the impending karma.
Follow Rose as she struggles with drama, pressure, addiction, betrayal, balancing faith with an audacious lifestyle, forgiveness, love, and a plethora of challenges an average girl can be sure to face in this intriguing book!
WHAT ARE YOUR BOOK’S UPSs? WHY SHOULD READERS PICK YOUR BOOK OVER SOMEONE ELSE’S?
I’ll say this book is a direct guide to a life of liberty and peace for people with past scars and scathed lives. People with pasts that haunt them. Those who believe they can never get a way out of that, they can never be forgiven, they cannot find love, and God hates them. People who bottle up things in their heads and minds, not knowing how to share what they feel with anyone.
It is a book you can pick up, read and follow its directions without having to share your pasts or problems with a million people.
TELL US A BIT MORE ABOUT YOURSELF…
I’m Akinola Peace, my pen name is Phoebee_writes and I’m popularly known and called Phoebe. I’m a Nigerian and I was born and bred in Lagos State, Nigeria. I just recently completed my bachelor’s degree from Olabisi Onabanjo University in Ogun state, Nigeria. My love for writing earned me diplomas in Rhetoric writing, Creative writing and Copywriting. I am a bibliophile and the founder of The Readers’ Circle, a book club that upholds the reading culture. Beyond The Stain is my first debut novel.
WHERE DID THE INSPIRATION FOR ‘BEYOND THE STAIN’ COME FROM?
The Inspiration for Beyond the Stain came from the Creator through my friend and partner, the Holy Spirit. It also came from listening to stories of young ladies who were/are going through a lot of struggles which they couldn’t/can’t speak up about. It compelled me to write this story and go all out for it.
IS THE BOOK’S TARGET AUDIENCE YOUNG ADULTS ONLY OR IS THIS CLASSIFICATION TOO NARROW?
The book’s target audience is Adults and Young Adults, since two of the major characters fall in that category.
CAN YOU TELL US A BIT MORE ABOUT YOUR PUBLISHER, IMAGINE NATIONS, AS IT IS NOT CURRENTLY ON OUR RADAR?
Imagine Nations is a one-stop book writing and publishing service. Their services range from ghostwriting and book coaching to editing, restructuring, designing and publishing. Based in Nigeria, they’ve worked with a number of clients, virtually and physically to help aspiring authors and business/career professionals cater for their content writing and publishing needs. For further enquiries, kindly contact Onifeloluwa via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
ARE YOU ON SOCIAL MEDIA? WHERE CAN OUR READERS FOLLOW YOU?
Picture this: it’s Thanksgiving (or Christmas if you are in Europe), you are a teenager who must spend time with close family and some of their friends, relatives, and a bunch of neighbours that you can’t stand normally, let alone in the confined space of your home. What you really want to do, instead, is spending time with your besties, who are, just like you, going through similar experiences. Knowing that you are not alone cheers you up a bit. So, you put up with it the best you can, and become one with your cell phone – the only way you have to keep sane and in touch with your friends – and brace yourself for what’s to come.
You walk downstairs and there they are, the worse congregation of humans only a mad man could have put together: Char Deerborn, your mum, wearing the necklace your great-grandmother left to her instead of your grandmother, skipping one generation and causing a ruckus in the family; Doug Deerborn, your dad, a weird and weak creature – the only man you know who took his wife’s name instead of the other way round; Tommy, your annoying little brother, going around with that stupid Michael Myers mask you stopped finding funny from moment one; your mother’s best friends MikeandMarleen, just like that, in a single world, because they are considered one single item even if they always look on edge around each other; Randy Richards, the bachelor, mortgage-free, retired neighbour, who’s a weirdo but despite seeing you smoking a spliff didn’t tell your parents; Uncle Danny, your father’s brother, recently released from jail who mistook you for a young cheek to hit on which you find simply disgusting; grandma Mable and grandpa Fred, your father’s parents, who are helping your mother in the kitchen even if she’s not their biggest fan because she thinks they are big-C conservatives who despise how her and your father are raising their family, but is civilised enough to hide it; last but not least there are Craig and Amy, the couple living across the road from you. Wait, they are supposed to be here, but they are not. They must be late as usual, perhaps because Craig, who is a huge videogame player probably lost track of time shooting some of his online friends, now delaying them both.
The bell rings. Here they are, you think, fashionably late. Now that we are all here, that torture adults call dinner can finally begins. On the other side of the door, though, there are grandma Judy and grandpa Owen, who decided to spend Thanksgiving with the rest of the family instead being stuck in traffic for hours due to a bad car accident on the highway.
As soon as grandma Judy sees your mother’s necklace, it’s a battle of snipes and hasty comments: the house, the kids, the way your father is cutting the turkey, your mother’s dress. When Doug tries to redirect the attention to something else, voicing the fact that MikeandMarleen are talking about divorce, all hell breaks loose.
“So, Mike, Marleen, when are you guys filing papers?” he blurted out. The dining room erupted. Fred and Mable. Charlotte looked up from her phone for the first time in fifteen minutes, finally more interested in reality than her digital friends. Tommy looked confused. Char’s rage had turned on Doug instead of her mother. Mike’s shoulders slumped. And Dan, well, had a strange little smile.
The only thing that can ruin the show is your little brother insisting he saw a monster. He’s just a child, after all, and right now adults have more important business to attend to. They dismiss him with few words and carry on trying to save what can be saved, but the damage is done and Mike leaves the house, or at least tries to. After six gin and tonics his reflexes are not top notch, and he smashes his car against a wall. While dealing with this new accident, the fold is attacked by a non-better identified animal, probably a bear (or so they’d like to think), but little Tommy insists on it being an Abiku, a demon that attacks the Yoruba people in Africa and eats children, and sometimes adults too.
No one wants to believe him, until the lights go off and the house is under siege, attacked by a mysterious monster with fangs and a thick fur that rapidly kills half of the family, relatives and friends and leaves the surviving ones in a state of petrified stupor and paralysing shock.
Wolf at the door is a short, scary novella that appeals to the most hidden fantasies of human beings. Who wouldn’t be happier to be under attack by a werewolf than spending time with their family at Thanksgiving/Christmas? Don’t lie, many of us are in this situation! The narrative is brilliant and very well built, considering there are 15 characters in total; each one is well rounded, their back story just enough to create conflict with the others and give the reader an accurate picture of the family dynamics. What makes this novella most interesting is the fact that the story arc is built around different parts of the dinner, so we have ‘Before dinner’, ‘Cocktails’, ‘The dinner’ and so on, creating a unique crescendo where events and relationships gradually unfold: we warm up with a cocktail while setting the scene, have the main meal, where we finally tackle the real problems and we end with dessert, where we savour the bitter-sweet success.
Besides finding this structure very smart, I deeply appreciated the theatrical setting of the story, developed exclusively inside a single house and the surrounding garden: once place is out of the way, the focus can be transferred onto the characters and, most of all, the action, which we have plenty of.
One aspect that perhaps could have done with a little more attention is pace: it’s a horror story, and the best way to build tension is dilating time and enriching the prose with every single, little scary detail of whatever happens. Apart from that, we are not at all surprised this novella won Joel the 2022 Global Book Award gold medal for horror, we can clearly see why!
What creepy, brilliant story will he come up with next? We can only hope it’s soon enough… In the meantime, we will look out for the next full moon, hoping none of our neighbours and close friends are coming for dinner.