Sunday, 31 January 2016

Meeting 'n' greeting the greats.

I wonder if it's just me (it usually is, whenever I start a sentence with that) but when I am presented with a magical situation, you know the one, the one when all my dreams could come true, all my questions could be answered and a heroic presence in my life could materialise before me, I get rather...anxious. 

I am referring to, of course, when one has the opportunity to meet someone. Someone famous, someone they admire, someone who has influenced their life in a good way.
It could be at a book signing, a gig, a party, even on the red carpet perhaps...when these occasions present themselves, it's the most wonderful and exciting thing.
And also the most terrifying, at times awkward thing.

Special VIP meet 'n' greets are nerve-racking. If only because there's the added pressure, the fact that the celebrity human you're meeting knows for a fact that you paid money for a ticket – maybe even paid extra on top of your pre-existing expensive ticket – for the chance to meet them. To chat with them. While this is immensely flattering for the celeb, it's effectively them getting a sense of their worth, it might also be scary for them because the nicer ones will want to make it worth your while parting with extra dolla and maybe queueing for more time...? And you might suddenly get shy when you come face-to-face with them at the end of the queue, and you get lost for words and they're freaking out because they don't know what to say to you...oh, it's a minefield.

Book signings are especially interesting in this sense. Over the past few years things have changed to make the whole signing process slicker and quicker, like for instance they now have assistants sweep down the queue asking for each fan's name to scribble on a Post-It and stick to the books, so the author doesn't have to ask 'name?' awkwardly and they can just sign while chatting. I actually worry for the author, having to focus on writing a little message and their signature on the inside page and at the same time make conversation with their readers on the other side of the table.
As someone who has been to her fair share (and several others' fair share) of book signings, I can safely say everything I intend to say falls out of my head when I actually lock eyes with the authors. Classic example would be John Green. As he frantically signed my copies (yes, pural) of The Fault in Our Stars, plus my Harry Potter Kings Cross ticket because my nerdiness is next level, I faltered fantastically trying to assemble words into coherent sentences. I believe the only thing I managed to say was: 'hey, I had so much to say and now it's all gone.' Excellent. I only hope that someday I can rectify that awkward meeting...maybe when we're chatting over a cuppa and co-writing our second book together.
Anyway, I managed to make better conversation when I met Louise O'Neill, Lisa Williamson and David Levithan at the New Day New Normal event at Waterstones – that was mostly down to the enormous bandage on my head that I had to have on for three days after my Cerebral Spinal Fluid was a killer conversation piece.

I was thinking about meeting my heroes recently, as I've met a couple of them in the past week. One of whom was Joshua Radin, who if you read regularly will know is my one true love and my favourite musical artist of all time, ever; last week I saw him live for the eighth time, and yes I paid extra to attend his sound check 'performance' and meet 'n' greet before the show. There was definitely a moment when I had no clue what on earth to say to him (as there has been the last three times I've met him) but eventually my fellow meet 'n' greeters and I just chattered with him about London, whisky, was lovely. I think he relaxed just as much as we did when we started talking about the Shepherds Bush Empire's roof falling down and the relocation to funny little Clapham, the fact that it miraculously wasn't raining...we could have just been pals meeting up in an old theatre for some reason and catching up.

The other hero of mine I met last week was Jo Elvin. Yes, Jo Elvin, editor-in-chief of Glamour magazine. Yes, her. She was hosting the Mind Your Head book event at the gorgeous new Waterstones Tottenham Court Road; she chatted with Juno Dawson and Olivia Hewitt about their new non-fiction release, asking questions here and there, and watching her I remembered the days when I'd spend my pocket money on Glamour magazine in Tesco Express across the road and read it cover to cover as I walked to and from school, or when I was tucked up in bed at home with biscuits when I was really supposed to be revising for exams...I idolised Jo. I still do. I could never do what she does – I want to, but I don't know if I have the drive, the flair or the decision-making powers!
So after the talking, when Juno and Olivia were signing books, I saw Jo wandering the shop alone, looking at books with a glass of wine in her hand, and I thought...I can't not. I must say hi. I asked friends for assistance, saying 'I have nothing interesting to say to her!' over and over...but I knew I'd kick myself if I didn't talk to her even a little. So I did. We had an actual conversation! About blogging, about books, about Australia. I rambled madly at her, my stupid hybrid accent intensifying due to nerves and her accent; she smiled warmly, asking about me which I found insane but lovely. I gave her blogging advice to pass along to her daughter. By the time my friends retrieved me, my legs had gone numb with excitement and I was grinning like a complete freakzoid. It was magical.

I will be encouraging myself to talk to my heroes more, from now on. Following my recent positive experiences in which I pushed on through my social awkwardness and the crippling hero-worshipping fangirl tendencies that overcome me far too often...
I'd rather meet the hero and waffle endlessly in their face like a complete tit, than leave the event and be upset with myself for not saying anything all the way home, forever regretting missing my one opportunity...

I wonder if one day I'll be a hero of someone's; someone that people might want to meet and have a conversation with. That would be mind-blowingly cool. However, I would definitely never want anyone to feel that way with me. The way I do when I meet my idols. Awkward...and just generally 'what's the point I have nothing worthwhile to say'-ish. I'd never want that. I'd want to chat!

(Me meeting John Green and floundering epically)

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Colouring & Drawing, too!

Now, I've reviewed Colour Me Mindful before, specifically the Butterflies edition in all its loveliness. Also Colour Me Mindful books have been on my TBR list before - under their own category To Be Coloured! So you might say I'm a major fan of this range - and Anastasia Catris, the genius artist. 
So imagine my excitement when I hear about this fun new colouring project - Draw Your Way to a Younger Brain! The latest art therapy series by Anastasia Catris. 
What makes this series different to the previous books? This one includes drawing! That's right, on some pages you are just given an outline alongside the original illustration, so you can go wild and create your own colourful patterns, and creatures!

Oh, I adore the creatures. Especially the Cats book. I am a cat colouring connoisseur, with no fewer than four cat colouring books stacked up on my desk, and I find that Anastasia's illustrations are the loveliest. 
The other two books, 
are beautiful also. I'm not a dog person (oh shh, we can't all be!) but even I find these images adorable and inviting.

It's a freakish coincidence that recently I wrote a post for The Olive Fox entitled 'Be Kind To Your Brain' which contained a few tips and ways to, well, be kind to your poor tired mind...and one of those tips was colouring!

These books are designed to assist your brain. I love my brain - yes, despite everything it's put me through - and taking care of it is top priority. So hearing that these books not only help with anxiety and focus (which is why I began colouring in the first place!) but also your memory and cognitive functions...I am thrilled beyond belief and I needed them in my life immediately! The tagline is 'draw your way to a younger brain', meaning you'll be more alert and retain more information. That's magical! 

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Blogging = work!?

I've always - well, since I was sixteen and spending the sacred free slots in my sixth form timetable up in the library typing out my angsty inner monologue furiously and then sending it out into hyperspace - dreamt of someday writing a blog Being my job.

Not as in I spend each weekday 9-5 sat at my desk slaving away on Blogger or Wordpress, spitting out words and downing excessive amounts of coffee...okay, maybe that latter part does appeal to, I mean making a legit living writing blog posts. Just whenever I upload something new, a little money wiggles its way into my account and I hear the cheeky little cha-ching sound as I click 'publish'.
I've realised recently that's what I'd really, really like to happen in my life.
It's like that ancient silly saying the parents will always spout at you when you're deciding on GCSE subjects or applying for your first part-time job in the local supermarket: 'Choose a job you love, and you'll never work a day in your life'.
Well, that's what blogging would be for me. I'd be doing something I love - love so much that I'd probably putting in more hours than were strictly necessary - and for some mad reason I'd be getting paid for it, too!

Over the past year I've started contributing to other blogs and thinking how magical it would be to someday be a freelance blogger who gets snatched up by other sites and charges the tiniest fees for each post she writes...all these blogs have said at one time or another that they'd love to someday be able to pay their writers, and that's great that they're thinking ahead but obviously it means they have to trek through a lot of muck and bring up traffic to tumultuous levels before they can think about doing that.
Important point: this post is not me saying 'I demand to be paid' right now, oh no no no way nope! Right now I'm just delighted to be writing for others and getting my pieces out to a wider audience! Okay? Get me? Cool.

Now, blogging being my job is still a long way away but I know I'm making headway, these days. For starters, I just got a sweet gig at Maximum Pop! Books (@maximumpopbooks) being their official Marketing Exec and occasionally writing for their amazing site! *Accepts applause, blows kisses* (I know, I can't believe it either!)
Also I'm on a list to potentially become a Peer Editor for, the wonderful website that gives advice and hope and often life hacks to teens and young people. I'm also going to be in a cheeky video for The Site this week, script written by the rad Louise Jones as it is based on her piece she wrote recently about *drum roll* period sex! I cannot wait to get to work on that...
Oh, and these days I'm going to book events and launches and all sorts with a notepad and pen, meaning I'm a legit blogging personality now...someone who will attend an event or read a book, then write about it, and people will actually want to hear what I have to say! That's madness, and thrilling.
The biggest boost to my blogging lifestyle recently, though, has to be when the awesome Ness (my ex-lecturer in Creative Writing at Winchester Uni & prominent member of the Golden Egg Academy) contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in speaking in a seminar to some students about the wonders of blogging – and what it's done for me/what I've done and am doing in that world! Don't get me wrong, the idea of speaking to a room full of CV3 students (plus the lecturers, plus my fellow graduate speakers) in the good old HJB on campus does terrify me beyond belief, but I can't not do it! It's so exciting. An exciting honour, at that. I am happy to blow the horn for blogging to those kids! Because it is nowadays, finally, a proper profession.

So yes, this is my unusual word-vomiting way of saying: I'm getting there. I'm making writing – blogging, specifically – a job. Work. Something I do as a legit occupation. I can only hope that someday I'll have a few books to my name and be a properly qualified (and disgustingly busy and popular) blogger, too. Someday...

New place of work...!

Blogs I've contributed to...

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Dream Jobs..........plural!

Growing up, I went through a lot of 'dream job' phases.
I fancied being an artist from an early age, for some reason I thought I could make it big and get my artwork out there to the masses...bless baby Grace.
Then I moved on to 'author'...if I'm honest, I haven't quite grown out of this just yet. But we'll get to that later on.
When choosing my subjects for A Level studies, I toyed with the idea of doing Psychology, or Philosophy. I ignored the fact that my brain doesn't work* in the way required to take those subjects. I had it in my head to 'get realistic' with my career aims. So obviously I was thinking of becoming a Drama Therapist. Or an Art Therapist. Someone who helps those in dire need of counselling and direction with the aid of art and dramatics...a great thing in theory, but I am nowhere near equipped for that! My goodness.
A rather cool job would be putting on an art exhibit in London which every piece is made from LEGO...(Art of the Brick, Nathan Sawaya)

After seeing a live show in Seaworld, Australia, I was suddenly desperate to become a fully qualified dolphin trainer. One of the team of gorgeous tanned professionals who rode the dolphins across the pool and sent them soaring into the skies while the crowds applauded.

I definitely went through the 'acting' phase. I took GCSE then A Level Drama & Theatre Studies, got perfect grades and stupidly thought this was it, I was made for a life in the spotlight. Then I had my first ever Drama lecture at uni (doing my degree in Drama & Creative Writing combined honours) and met my fellow students, all of whom took their acting so so super-seriously, and planned on attending Drama schools in London following the BA graduation. They could all dance and sing, too. I just enjoyed acting – I wasn't even all that good at it, really. Not when compared to my most excellent theatrical peers. So yeah, I decided against going down the acting route very soon after starting my degree. Luckily, the Creative Writing part of it reminded me just how badly I wanted to be a writer. So that was a huge win!

I am currently working as a barista – which is an instant tick on the Dream Jobs list! I've always loved and been fascinated by coffee; I blame and thank my parents for taking me and my sister to all the best high street cafes in our younger years. Anyway, making caffeinated drinks is an incredible act of artistry. I am so terrified I don't measure up some days – then I remember I was a Regional Finalist for Nero's Barista of the Year. *brushes shoulder*

Yes, my ultimate career goal is...WRITER. I am so determined and so passionate about this. It's something I must do. I doubt I could do much else, to be honest. Nothing else gets me as fired up, as excited and inspired. It's a little scary how much I want it.

However, I realised some time ago that I don't have to be just that, and that alone, for my entire life. I can do other things, too. I can have my list of dream jobs – just jobs, not necessarily careers – and I can do them all on my way or alongside being a hot-shot writer. Right?
So, here they are...

This idea came to me when I saw my auntie get married (in a wild nature reserve, in Australia, about seven years ago) by a civil celebrant. A woman in a stunning cream suit with a high-tech Gwen Stefani wireless mic, who married my auntie and uncle without any priestly powers or religious affiliation.
And then one of my neighbours got trained up to be a celebrant – it made so much sense, she's beautiful and dynamic and down-to-earth!
Celebrants do weddings, yes, but also funerals...that would be the one snag for me. I've only been to two funerals in my life, and only one of them really hurt me, but it hurt enough for me to never ever want to go to a funeral again. I know I'll have to, but I won't if I can help it. I'm an emotional wreck! If I had to head up a funeral, I'd weep relentlessly. More than any of the family members present.
The idea of marrying two people, though. That's magical.

Social Worker Person @ a charity.
When I was introduced to the hospital in which I'd have my radiotherapy treatment, I was also introduced to Elsa, the social worker/magical human who works for Clic Sargent in dealing with struggling young people/children with horrible diagnoses.
She sat with my mum and I, going through all our awesome options regarding care – she told me I was eligible for appointments with any and all specialists in the entire hospital (I wish I'd made an effort with the dietician...) and then presented me with all manner of leaflets. This is how I first discovered the Little Princess Trust – because I was eligible for one of their beautiful real-hair wigs! I declined as politely as I could because my gosh, save that amazing stuff for the little kiddies! It was what inspired me to donate my hair and over £2,000 in friends' donations, though...
Anyway, Elsa was an angel, an actual angel. I'd love to have a job like that; a job in which I have to be there for people, take care of them and offer them all the lovely things they are so totally entitled to.
It helps that I've had this awful experience – sometimes that's what inspires you to follow these paths in life. I have a friend I met in outpatients once, who struggled with a tumour just like I did, and he is now determined and destined to be a physiotherapist after being taught how to walk again after his surgery. Amazing, right?

I don't care what I do, I have to work in publishing. I simply must. It's the most amazing field – even just tweeting my pals in publishing and receiving book mail from a couple of publishing houses blows my mind. I would absolutely love to work in an office with the gorgeous people who make, distribute and publicize books. I'd work so so hard, and of course go nuts all over social media. Ooh, I'd make an excellent social media manager...

News reporter.
I'm aware that this is a little out of reach, especially since a lot of my pals who did Journalism at uni had to have special training in presenting news in front of a camera – and even then, only a few of them could do it!
But still...I would love sitting at the BBC desk reading out the headlines. Maybe for South East Today. Maybe next time I make Polly a double macchiato, I can ask her about job opportunities...Loads of my friends have said in the past that they can see me doing this, and while I wonder why, I'd hate to disappoint them!

Something abroad.
I have friends who have uprooted and moved to gorgeous places all over the planet for epic new jobs – the whole TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) has taken off, and so many of my friends are now out there in Japan/Korea/Thailand teaching lovely kids how to speak our language. That is amazing. I'd love to do something like that...but then again, I cannot teach. Nope, never.
Obviously I'd love to maybe work for a publishing company, or a newspaper, or a TV channel, abroad. But nothing too stressful, nothing that would spoil the whole 'abroad' experience. I plan on travelling in this beautiful new year 2016, and I hope my barista skills will stand me in good stead for casual jobs here and there...

I'd love to someday work in a coffee shop with a blackboard and a wicked sense of humour.

So, those are my aims, my goals. Who knows how many of these awesome jobs I'll manage to tick off my list? I'd be happy with just one or two...preferably the 'author' one...
Keep your fingers crossed for me, friends!
And please oh please tell me what your dream jobs are!

Twitter: @GracieActually
Instagram: @gracieactually

*yes, I am aware that my brain doesn't work very well at all. Silly old brain, growing things here and there, and then soiling itself repeatedly mood-wise. Ughh.

Friday, 22 January 2016

I have a syndrome!?

The other day I found myself stirring in my lovely bed, cat by my side obviously, and the sun was streaming through my window. How odd, I remember thinking. It's not light early these days...
Then I hear the radio trickle through my muddled consciousness from the next room. That'll be a good indicator of the time! I smile smugly at my brilliance. I don't even have to reach over (and risk a snooty glare from the cat) to grab my phone from the bedside table and see what time it is! 
I strain and hear an old-school Scottish accent – forever reminding me of a budget edition of Terry Wogan – oh, Ken! Right so that means it's after 9:30...then I hear a female recorded voice shout 'THREE in TEN!!' and I spring up in bed. That's the final part of Popmaster! It must be 10:45 or 10:50! Shit! How did I sleep in this late?!

Somnolence Syndrome. That's my lot, that's what I got. I'm so happy there's a legitimate-sounding name for my current condition. Just saying 'tiredness' seems lame, or worse, fake. Saying 'radiotherapy-induced tiredness' sounds a little serious, and yet at the same time silly...? I've said 'the radio sleeps' a few times, that seems cool and offhand enough while at the same time oddly legit...

Basically, I'm mega tired and constantly sleeping, and it's down to my radiotherapy. Yes, I am aware that my radiotherapy ended 8 weeks ago (wait, that's 2 months!? Holy sh--) and that I was supposed to expect the tiredness kicking in as the treatment went on; literally every consultation with a specialist during the treatment they'd say 'You will lose hair soon/you will get tired soon/you will get SICK SO VERY SICK SO SOON BE AFRAID GRACIE' and yet nothing was happening for the first five weeks. In fact, it wasn't until the car journey home after my last complete week (with only two little days left the following week) that I found some hair was coming out in my hands as I ran my fingers through. I actually thought oh, FINALLY. Same when I started sleeping more heavily at night – 10 hours errrry night! – and even when I started getting sad. When The Sads returned, I worked up the courage to mention it to the radiographers and they were delighted almost to tell me that it's normal and not nice but totally expected...the nicer cells get a whack from the radiation too, and all that. 

The one thing I didn't get, however, was the tiredness. Like, not just the heavy night-time sleeping, no the actual overwhelming tiredness day-to-day. It never happened. I couldn't help but think 'Well, my surgeon said I'd sail through this, so...'
I was duly warned that sometimes symptoms take a while to catch up with you, that often patients would find they'd get the tiredness up to 10 weeks down the line. That sounded horrific – I'd hate to have things catch up with me! No, thank you. I banished that thought and for the last few weeks (as y'all may know) I've been planning the future and generally getting my shit together. Booking events, arranging meetings with the manager at work, writing more and more...also I am currently looking into travel insurance so I can fly (the consultant the other day told me I could fly and I legit freaked out with happiness) out with some pals on another magical Euro expedition. It's all go.
So obviously, this is when it hits me.
I can't remember when exactly it struck, but I do remember having action-packed days one week, back and forth from London, walking anywhere and everywhere, seeing theatrical marvels, getting drunk and disorderly in my precious little town, and meeting up with old friends, new friends, all of the friends...I'm not scientifically sure, but I'm fairly suspicious that my extra activities were what brought it on all the more. Like y'know, girls, how extra exercising brings on the periods? Just like that!
One day I napped unexpectedly in the afternoon for three hours solid – no waking up and rolling over, even, I'm talking hardcore heavy sleeping. I woke up for dinner and panicked that I'd be up half the night having napped...nope. I slept the whole night through as well. Then the next day I had real trouble getting out of bed in the morning. The cat came in and snuggled with me – as he's been doing constantly lately, because I maintain he is psychic – and I fell back to sleep. I got out of bed around midday. Then the next day, which I recall was a Sunday, I stayed in bed all day. Almost. I got out once, to make myself some sandwiches despite not being hungry, and I fell over onto the kitchen floor. I was so weak and wobbly, I had to crawl back upstairs with my plate. The parents were out, in case you were wondering – they've been rocks, as per, since this started. I have food made for me and baths run for me; I get walked up and down the stairs, tucked in on the sofa, and I'm never urged to get up and out because they know the feels are real.

It's overwhelming. I really mean that. It's like a magical spell – like I've been cursed to sleep forever! I can't explain it,'s like if I laid down on the sofa right now and shut my eyes, I'd be out in minutes. I am never not tired. My legs are jelly, my head is heavy and my yawning is constant and eternal. I yawn for actual minutes, now. Also my dreams are the most vivid they've ever been, which would be cool if they weren't also the most realistic they've ever been...eeek.
A lot of the time I keep dreaming that I just...get up in the morning. Seriously. I am constantly dreaming that my sunny alarm tune (Bill Withers, obvs) kicks in, I sit up and get out of bed, go down the hall and shower, then crack on with my day. These dreams are so freakishly spot-on for my routines and movements when I'm not flat on my back trapped in sleepiness, I do wonder why they're popping into my head. Is it my brain torturing me even further? Is it normal for somnolence sufferers? I wonder.

The specialist tells me it should last 2-3 weeks. That's fine, it's already been just shy of 2, and I do have days now when I can stay awake and sit up more, so it must be getting better...maybe.
I made it to an event in Tottenham Court Road last night, so that's definite progress! (to be fair, I was never going to miss out on that exciting event for the new non-fiction Mind Your Head at a brand new Waterstones, oh no!)
Next week I have a lot more on, and the week after even it's like I'm expecting to be better by then! Like I know somehow that I'll be waking up next Wednesday morning and skipping out the front door. I admire my idiotic optimism, sometimes. Or is it body intuition?! Let's hope so...

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Panther: review & interview!

Oh hey there, bookish friends and wanderers who have stumbled across this blog. Ready for a book review??
Book reviews are such fun to write, and I have been trying to do more lately. Part of the reason this one has come into being is that the author of the book has suggested most subtly that I do one, the fool...well actually, he knows he's safe as this most excellent tale made it into my 2015 Best Reads post. Here's a little more on why...

The picture is of a panther AND A BOY. V cool. Took me a while to see, ngl.

So, I met David at the UKYA Lit Weekender at the Southbank Centre some months ago (he spoke on the most excellent panel about mental health – and general health – in fiction) and we chattered for a little too long (sorry, I can be intense) about the wonderful city of Winchester and the uni, our shared alma mater. I bought Panther from a stall at the event, partly because I was so wowed by the reading and then discussion on the panel, and partly because my pal Jack was tweeting me about how great the book was, and basically insisting that I buy it. I take his word as gospel. Oh also, I was fascinated by the story. Obvs.

Panther is about a teenage boy, Derrick, who is suffering in his family home as his older sister is depressed. She's even attempted suicide (his mum is now hiding all the sharp kitchen utensils). What's more his parents are split up, his best friend has turned on him with all the moronic meat-heads at his school, and he's suddenly seriously overweight. So...things are rather shit for Derrick. Then he hears news of a wild animal roaming his suburb, being hunted but never caught by the authorities. An invisible beast, a panther. Derrick takes it upon himself to catch it.

I found this a fascinating read as it provides another angle on depression; the family of the one who is afflicted, and how it affects them. How heartbroken it makes them and at times downright resentful they are towards her. The story communicates how much of an effect depression can have on a person - Derrick complains that Charlotte's always crying, always locked away in her room screaming. For no reason, allegedly.

A favourite part of mine was when Derrick had a proper discussion with his dad about personal matters; without spoiler-ing here, the dad of the family had some personal struggles of his own and said that they may have contributed to the end of the marriage between the parents. 
Another favourite part was, weirdly, when the best friend got his come-uppance for betraying poor Derrick. What he did was just totally uncool. Hearing Hadley (the girl Derrick always crushed on) say 'all he did was stick it in and lie there' was oddly satisfying, too. Maybe because Derrick enjoyed hearing it so much...
Yes, my empathy for Derrick was immense as the story continued. An interesting thing I found was that the book was written in third person and yet Derrick's inner monologue, his hopes and fears, his thoughts that became actions, were so perfectly communicated! His personal reasons for eating a whole lot more suddenly and as a result putting on loads of weight - ultimately his need for control and this being the best way he could get it - are somehow completely understandable. As is his yearning to catch this beast in his suburb - he needs the personal victory, to be hailed a hero in his town and of course impress others. The school bullies maybe, the girl he loves...his family, too. 

One other genius factor in the tale has to be the panther, the beast in the shadows, and its use at times as the perfect metaphor for depression. Derrick's obsession with defeating it, capturing the thing that's causing such drama and pain...well, it was much like his sister's dark diagnosis. At times it felt like Derrick was so upset and angry that he couldn't control that awful thing in his life, so he had to take on a project, something else he actually could exert a little power over. Maybe. Could he?

So, I was able to email the excellent David Owen and ask him a few questions about the book...

​~ Where did the initial idea for Panther spring from? Was it a moment, a discussion or a maybe just a word? 

I grew up on the border between Penge and Beckenham in south east London, and one of the only things of note (except that the latter is where David Bowie did his first performances, *sniff*) about these suburbs is the persistent rumour of a wild panther on the loose. It's been spotted enough for the rumour to have some credence, and the police have even been out with a helicopter to look for it (remind you of anything from the book?) Plus a friend of mine, who is rational as they come, thinks he saw it, and can't offer any other explanation. 

So! I always a bit taken by this idea, and wanted to fit it into a story for a long time. Separate to that, depression is something that has affected my family for many, many years. My older sister suffered with it very badly as a teenager, and at that age I really struggled to understand just what the heck was going on. It was only later, when I was diagnosed with it myself, that I really began to understand.

Somewhere along the way it struck me that the panther was a perfect metaphor for depression: dark, powerful, lurking under the surface of daily life, something many people refuse to believe exists. I used the idea to draw on my personal experience, and that's how the book happened!

~ The suburb in which the story takes place seemed rather specifically designed; did you see a certain place that you liked for the story, or maybe do any location scouting to help inspire? 

It's based really heavily on my childhood home, which I'm sitting in right now, in fact! It's suburbia, and there's an allotment out the back, where the panther has been sighted a couple of times. In writing the book I made a lot of changes, specifically making the allotment much bigger, but it is altogether similar.

~ What made you want to tell a story of the family of someone with depression? Rather than having a main character with mental health issues?

As mentioned in my first answer, depression is something I've seen from both sides. There were times growing up when it really felt like depression would tear my family apart, and I felt really powerless. And baffled! I just couldn't understand it. What did she have to be depressed about?! So instead of being supportive, and trying to help, I almost certainly made it harder for her. It's only later that I realised how terribly I behaved.

I hope that by focusing on the family around the person directly suffering, and how they fail to understand and communicate, it might encourage people to do the opposite of that. There's still huge stigma around depression and mental health, and by being more open and supportive, more willing to talk and understand, we can start to dispel that.

It's also something of an apology to my sister. Thankfully things didn't end quite so badly for us, but it was a close thing at times, and I wish I'd done more to help. I don't want anybody else to make the same mistake.

~ Why did that thing happen at the end that broke my heart? (Legit question)

Okay, so, I've got a bit of stick for this, and I genuinely think it might have hurt the commercial prospects of the book, because I think most YA readers want hope and happy endings. But that wouldn't have been right for Panther. There may be spoilers ahead!

That thing happens because I thought it was important to show that it's a very real possibility if depressed people do not have help and support. Suicide is responsible for something like 20% of deaths in young people. Which is ridiculous. It's a horrible thing to do in the book, and it was so painful to write, but I felt it was the only honest outcome. All the characters around Charlotte are convinced that if she gets her grades, and goes to university, her depression will magically disappear. They pin their hopes on external circumstances, and fail to understand that it's so much more profound than that. If she was alright in the end, after getting her grades, it would have proved them right. It would have felt like a magical solution, something which simply doesn't exist. This family doesn't communicate properly, so they can't understand and offer support, and what happens is a very real possible consequence.

Some reviews have said that they read it as depressed people having no hope, no other possible outcome. If it reads that way, I am so, so sorry. That isn't my intention at all. Suicide is never the solution. But it still happens in huge numbers, and I had show that. It's too important to ignore.

~ And finally, I have to ask this one obvs...where is your favourite spot in Winchester? Any perfect writing spots in that funny old city? 

It's not terribly original, but I think my favourite place on the planet is the top of St Catherine's Hill on a sunny day. I've been up there with friends to muck about or sunbathe, I've been up there alone when I was heartbroken, and it used to be part of my running route (in my fitter days!). It's a beautiful spot, and it means so much to me. Oh, Winchester 

~ See other reviews & buy Panther here! ~
~ Follow David Owen. Do it. He is brilliant, funny and has a cute cat. ~

Thursday, 14 January 2016

All about the words.

So the other day in hospital, where many of my best stories occur, I was asked while waiting for some exciting blood forms to be filled out what my favourite word is.
And my mind went blank.
My first thought that fell onto the thick white snow inside my mind was 'what kind of writer am I if I can't think of my favourite word?!'
I've since come to the conclusion that I couldn't think of a word at that moment because I was put on the spot; I'm so awful when put on the spot! I panic and yes, more often than not I leg it in pure, hot terror. I'm trying to get better at it, though, I swear. I mean, if I plan on someday working for a magazine or newspaper, or taking part in Mock the Week's Scenes We'd Like To See round with my fellow ingenious stand-ups (just a silly little fantasy, no biggie)...I'll need to up my on-the-spot game, for sure.

Anyway, I then of course tweeted about this terrible moment, asking my totally rad and completely articulate followers what their favourite words are. I then promptly napped after sending the tweet out (that was one nap of four yesterday; radiotherapy side effects have well and truly caught up with me, at last) and awoke to 20+ replies! All of them excellent, of course. Here are some of my favourites of my friends' favourite words...

Some people (@TheGeorgeLester, @rorotbd) actually said 'fuck'. Their reasoning being 'it is applicable in any situation', which is true! It can be totally fucking good, it can be downright fucking vicious. See?
Hold on, I'm jumping on a tangent – what's everyone's favourite swear word? Mine is either 'shit' (so satisfying, I mean hello!) or 'bollocks' (preferably said in my mama's Aussie accent).
And what about the least favourite? Mine is probably the C word. Not because of the way it sounds – it sounds awesome – no, because it carries too much power. That's why I've only uttered it aloud twice in my life, and both times I absolutely meant it. That's exactly what's wrong! Having said that I also hate it when 'ladz' are constantly saying it and calling one another it...ugh, such a tangled web of words.
Tangent ending in 5, 4, 3, 2...

I realise how words can often be tainted by the sense in which they are used; or whom is using them. For instance, I have an aversion to the word 'excess' after hearing it said repeatedly (always pronounced incorrectly) by a slimeball while he was throwing grapes into his gob onstage. 
I also detest, slightly more understandably I reckon, the word 'tumour'. Even before I learned that I had one, I hated that word. I remember Frank Jr Jr saying it in Friends 'He's like my old dog, Tumour!' (para) and thinking why the frick would you call your pet TUMOUR?! I mean, really! It's just a yucky word. I realise I give it a lot of power, mind you, because I deliberately avoid saying it as much as possible - which takes a lot of skill in my situation. Even now, typing it on my laptop, I'm blushing and squirming.
Also, a Brit's most hated word, it seems...that word. The 'M' word. The word that indicates something is...damp, wet, soluble? A face can become this word if a specific type of cream is used; a cake on GBBO often has an issue being too much this word or not this word enough...y'all know what word I mean now? Good. So I don't have to type it. Or say it*. Ever.

I weirdly love the word 'loathe'. It's delicious. They say 'hate' is a strong word...'Loathe' is stronger, and better. Yum.
Also, 'silver'. And 'sliver'. Both supple and slippery words, both can easily be applied in perfect situations, e.g.: 'silver jewellery' or 'a sliver of lemon poppyseed cake'.
I also find I go through phases using a certain word more than usual, and right now that word is 'excellent'. Usually prefixed by 'most'. Most excellent. No idea why I am loving that phrase right now, but I'm rolling with it. Yes, 'rolling with it' is a favourite phrase too.
Quite a few folks also said 'iridescent'. And 'serendipitous'. Both lovely! Reminded me that I love the words 'descent' and 'serene'.
So I still don't know what my favourite word is. Yes, my blank snowy mind is looking clearer now and that's not the problem. I now have too many options for a favourite word!

Oh also, anyone who didn't reply to that tweet...what's your fave word?
This is definitely a question I'll be asking famous folks one day when I'm interviewing them on the red carpet or in a hotel over coffee between snaps on their big shoots...

*I don't actually dislike the word 'moist'; I just don't want to offend anyone by typing it. Sorry, disclaimer readers. 

Monday, 11 January 2016

Welcome to January.

I can't be the only one who woke up on Boxing Day thinking 'oh shit, I have to get my life in order!' Can I?! I feel that is perfectly normal. 
I was panicking all day on the 26th, listing all the things I had to do like, ASAP. Things like complete the fledgling first novel, queue up 10+ blog posts, read 20+ books...and also clear out my wardrobe, tidy up and tone down my hair, fill up my diary with awesome events, and maybe whack out my hardly-used aerobics step at least once a day from now on. The alarm bells were going off: it was time for a re-model, a re-think...a gosh-darned revival of ME. And it had to happen immediately.

I spent the empty, mind-numbing Limbo DaysTM (December 26th – 31st; I mean seriously, what do we do with those days except eat leftovers, watch endless films when they're shown on TV despite having the DVDs and/or Netflix, drink at lunchtime and just feel generally unusual and lost?!) planning out the 2016 Gracie; the girl who had no health concerns and no personal drama, the girl who could read four books in a matter of hours, the shimmering force of positivity, the soon-to-be-discovered legendary author, the girl who signs off emails with her blog URL and the name Gracie rather than boring old Grace...there was a lot to plan out and a lot to put into action.

Fortunately, I could palm off the grand reveal of the new me and all the work that came with it until...January. January was a magical faraway land full of promise and self-pride. Everyone was feeling it – friends, family, even strangers in the street, all of them buying indulgent products they weren't given for Christmas and making coffee dates in sparkling new diaries, oh yes. 2016 was set to be OUR YEAR, folks. I had my own reasons for thinking this, for actually jumping on board with the New Year New Me nonsense, but I did get swept up all the more in all the excitement surrounding me. Bring on January!

Well, here we are. January. *blows little kazoo*
Has anyone else felt their New Year hype die down lately? Or is that just me? It was suddenly squashed and packed away just the other day, I swear.
Again, I have my own reasons for feeling this way (my radiotherapy after-effects have finally caught up with me and I am tired all the damn time, like literally having four naps a day or just not even leaving my bed, such a buzzkill am I right?!) but it's not just me. Other friends have all told me that they're still feeling positive and optimistic as can be, however right now they're up against it. Why? I think I know why...

It's a January HangoverTM!! Much like New Year's Eve itself, when the countdown finishes and you've all stopped singing drunkenly, arms linked, this anti-climax tidal wave hits you and it's really quite hideous. I'll admit I didn't get that this year, miraculously, because I was at a kick-ass party in London with some quality people, but still. I remember having that feeling every other year. I think it follows a pattern, y'know.
We have the sinking feeling after midnight NYE, then New Year's Day, the day of aimless hungover wandering questioning everything that's happening in your life; then the first week or so of January you are properly hyped and happy, excited for the promise of the year ahead. There's a slight blip on the radar which is going back to work...all my proper allegedly adult friends with 9-5 lifestyles went back on the 4th January this year, and homies I was feeling for ya. I really was. In my favourite coffee shop. Having the best cake. Mmm.
Then of course when everyone makes it through the first week back at work they're doubly hyped and overjoyed; they celebrate and decide that they're off to a good start in this new year thing.

And then, slowly but surely, you realise that this new year thing is overrated and you're still the same person you've always been, just with a slightly better grip on reality and a fresher mindset. And hopefully a stronger urge to do fun things! For instance, I've decided to see one gig or theatrical thing every month (not a huge aim I know, but that would be more than last year!). Plus I've booked in (via the most excellent Jim, obvs) so many exciting book launches and events, oh my! I'll be blogging about each and every one of those... Also I'll be doing ALL of the writer-type work experience weeks, here there and everywhere! So yes, 2016 will be exciting and different, in the best way. I'll be different, too. Hopefully in the best way. Just right now I'm overcome with those muddled January feels...

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Best Reads of 2015 & Must-Reads 2016.

So, we all know I can be truly tragic at time-keeping, right? Well, if you didn't know that about me I suppose you do now. Oops. It's one of my many new years resolutions to fix this; I have a feeling that this will be the resolution that falls by the wayside as I focus on the much more exciting and important ones, but the intention is there, I swear...

Anyway, my most recent terrible time-keeping has been in blogging. I have written so many posts lately, I've been on such a roll (and no doubt actually saying this will jinx me for several weeks).
I've written about the importance of loving your body, the normality of, well, loving your body mm mmm yeah, a little something about my feelings on the traditions present in weddings, a good old rant about friends in relationships/third wheelin', my personal highlights of 2015 and resolutions/hopes for 2016, even a teeny piece about how I first found out Santa was not a legit human...
..........................................................and yet I really struggled to get this one out there, to compile this very important list! 
My Top Reads of 2015!
In fact, I have left this so late that I have decided to simply condense and combine it with my Desperate To Read 2016 post. My New Year TBR! Yes, that's right, yet another TBR post.

Right so, here we go...

2015 was a big year for me in terms of books. Around the beginning of the year I finally acknowledged and accepted that my love of YA fiction was not a guilty pleasure, but a real genuine legitimate...pleasure. A real love. And I mustn't be ashamed of that! YA has been such a mind-blowing and much-needed addition to the literary world. Little did I know that come the end of 2015 I would have not only met – and in some cases chattered with, bought cocktails with and even cuddled up with – some of my favourite YA authors, but we would all follow one another on social media and a whole community of book bloggers and booktubers would be welcoming me into their fantastical world with open arms and perfect cuppas.
The UKYA community has been wonderful, to say the least. I'd actually say that back in November when I was undergoing intense radiotherapy treatment each day, the highlight of my week was coming home on Friday evening – because at 8pm I'd be sitting on the sofa half-watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine with the family, but mostly engrossed in the incredible #ukyachat discussing all things bookish and YA with all my amazing pals!
Anyway, I could go on and on about this community for the entirety of this post, but I must stay on task. For now.

This year my Goodreads challenge was 35 books in a year. I surpassed that, which was actually a shock as I'd thought what with full-time work, my problematic brain needing medical assistance, and (finally) writing my own novel, I'd have almost no time to read. How wrong I was. One major helper here was whenever I was visiting friends in other cities or towns scattered around the country I'd be travelling on a train with headphones in and my nose in a book. I finished so many books on three-hour train journeys – I started taking more than two with me per trip.
I find the Goodreads 'My Year In Books' thing so awesome. It reminds me what I loved most, and also tells me which books are generally read most (or liked least) by my book-loving peers.

PLEASE NOTE: these were all books that I READ in 2015. They may not all have been released in 2015. Cool.
Oh also, I would post a photo of all of these books in a very artistically assembled stack, however most of them are currently on loan to various friends, so...

Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig.

I've written about the awesomeness that is this book already in the 'BooksThat Changed My Life' post; because that's what it did. It changed my life. I then lent my copy to all my friends and family members that I thought would enjoy and benefit from reading it, and also needed their life changed and their brain explained (at least in part) by Matt Haig, my Twitter friend and life guru. 
This book taught me more about mental health than any medical documentation I've been given in the past; even more than all the blog posts on the subject I have read over the last couple of years combined. I saw myself in so many of Matt's experiences and feelings, yet also couldn't comprehend the intensity of his suffering.
Obviously I'd recommend this book to anyone and everyone – however I also feel like I should warn y'all before you read it. It will change you.
This book has been a huge hit this year, and was up for the Waterstones Book of the Year award (it should have won); right now it's Waterstones Non-Fiction Book of the Month! 

The Art of Being Normal, by Lisa Williamson.

In my house we've always joked (joked most seriously, mind you) that the word 'normal' is ugly and unwelcome. It's a swear word. I'm so glad to have grown up believing this, believing that 'normal' is just not a thing, not something you can put your finger on, but I know some kids and adults have their own ideas about the concept and some will do whatever they can to get it. To get normal.
This book was the most perfect account of two teens trapped in the wrong bodies; finding their way in the world and being oppressed by society (perfectly represented in their playground).
David & Leo are the most perfect misfits. David wants to be a woman. He frequently takes notes of his observations about his body, and has his secret goals in mind. Leo is the new kid at school, with the mysterious past. David is determined to befriend him, to find out why he seems so surly and angry at the world. They become unlikely pals and tackle some of their biggest issues together.
This is one of those books that I find hard to summarise as a) it's so much more than the perfect story, and b) I don't want to give too much away...

TBR 2016 (onwards): Lisa's next novel. I'm already excited for it, and I have a feeling I will identify with it a ridiculous amount. 

BOTH BOOKS OMG by Louise O'Neill.

Oh c'mon, if you follow me on Twitter and/or Instagram (@gracieactually on both, yeah) AND if you regularly read Oh No (which you totally should) then you'll know that my love for Louise O'Neill is eternal and knows no bounds. I tend to tweet her when tipsy. I have no shame. I believe at one point I was even trying to set her up with one of my uni friends/exes.
My love for her began when I read her ingenious debut Only Ever Yours, then rapidly escalated when I attended the New Day New Normal tour at Waterstones Piccadilly, and then just when I thought it could go no further I read Asking For It and, well...whoa.

Only Ever Yours is about women in a futuristic and oppressive misogynistic world. As in, misogyny is the norm. This is a world where females are not born, they are designed. They compete with each other. This story was dystopian deliciousness; Freida will soon be graduating from her school, these are her final few months being taught and trained before the Ceremony in which she and her classmates will be put on their future paths of Companion, Concubine or Chastity. 

Asking For It (#NotAskingForIt) is the story of Emma, a girl in a little Irish town who wakes up one morning on her front porch after a mad party the night before. That day photos of her, unconscious and in hideous compromising positions with the lads from the local team, the town's sporting heroes, are released onto social media. She was raped. Gang-raped.
The story follows her in the aftermath of this awful occurrence, and it is possibly the most brutal and painful read I've experienced in a long time; it's terribly excellent. And so, so important. I want it to be a mandatory module read someday in every school in the UK.

I also want to be Louise when I grow up. For now I'll settle for being her bestie/embarrassing little sis. 

The Next Together, by Lauren James.

I read this book in a week – and that was only because I was savouring it so so much. The majority of it was read in the cafe on the second floor of the Natural History Museum; when sitting there I alternated between devouring Lauren's beautiful words and scribbling down ideas for my second novel (I know I know, I should really finish the first...first...)
Katy and Matt have met before. Several times. As Matthew and Kit, as Matt and Katherine...they are secretly destined to be together, to meet and get together, in so many alternate lives. Their coming together is inevitable, but their relationship is turbulent – mostly due to the disasters they face and the fatalities that occur. Sadly those fatalities are also inevitable. The powers that be try to assist as best they can, but it's rather complicated work...
The story was perfectly told through historical documents, diary entries, emails, notes and of course the loveliest prose. I fell so madly in love, again and again. 

2016 TBR: The Last Beginning. Lauren's sequel to this tale that I already know will be epic and heartbreaking and gorgeous. When the last page of The Next Together featured those three words, that amazing title – and then my annotated copy (which I will treasure forever and always, thank you Lauren I properly love you) had the word SOON written beneath it...yes, I squealed.

Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne.

2015 was the year I discovered Holly Bourne. I read The Manifesto on How To Be Interesting in January, on my trains to and from work. I then got hooked on The Site, the rad website Holly worked on giving advice and guidance to young adults in their day to day lives and struggles (then my wicked friend Louise got a job there and made me a Peer Editor and omg). Holly's style of writing is magical; funny, identifiable, insightful and just perfectly readable.
Am I Normal Yet? was amazing. Teenage Evie has OCD and is on the road to recovery after a particularly challenging time with her illness. She's feeling things for bad boys, making friends with awesome girls who are reclaiming the word 'spinster', and generally working hard to appear, well, normal. This book covered so many crucial topics, and it covered them brilliantly.

Holly Bourne is very present in my TBR 2016: Soulmates is already cued up on my bedside table, and in February How Hard Can Love Be?, the next in the Spinster series, finally makes its way onto the shelves and into my desperate mucky hands.

All My Friends are Superheroes, by Andrew Kaufman.

I was sceptical when I first picked up this book. Mostly because it's only 100 pages long...but when I sneaked a peek at a few pages while browsing in the shop, I was entranced by the writing style – and the sheer brilliance of Kaufman's imagination.
Tom is a normal guy. All his friends are superheroes, though. He's even married to one, The Perfectionist. She's unfortunately been hypnotised into believing he's not there. On their wedding day, by her evil ex Hypno. He has to now convince her that he's really there, before she moves away forever.
After reading this I snatched up another of his novels, The Tiny Wife, found that just as imaginative if not quite as hysterical.

Panther, by David Owen.

I was first introduced to David at the UKYA Lit Weekender at the Southbank Centre some months ago; he was talking in the most excellent panel about mental health – and general health – in fiction. I heard he'd studied Creative Writing at Winchester uni, and try as I might I could not play it cool upon hearing this. Then I learned he'd done the BA, then an MA, then taught some of my friends! So obviously we had a chat afterwards, as we are Winchies and therefore eternally linked in life...
His debut novel Panther is about a boy, Derrick, who is suffering in his family home as his sister is depressed. His parents are split up, his best friend has turned on him, and he's suddenly seriously overweight. Then he hears news of a wild animal roaming his suburb, being hunted but never caught by the authorities. An invisible beast, a panther. Derrick takes it upon himself to catch it.
I found this a fascinating read as it provides another angle on depression; the family of the one who is afflicted, and how it affects them. How heartbroken and downright resentful they are.
I did see David after finishing reading Panther, at the prestigious event that is #DrinkYA, but couldn't work up the nerve to ask questions...the burning question being 'why did that thing happen at the end? No, the other thing?' I still want to know...

One, by Sarah Crossan.

Twins. Conjoined twins. Tippi & Grace, Grace & Tippi. They have two separate hearts and minds, but are simply stuck together from the waist down.
This was the last book I was reading while having radiotherapy. I do believe I finished it on my last day of treatment – I devoured 300 pages in one morning. The way it's written really is something else. It's the most poetic prose. Somehow Sarah Crossan managed to cram an immense load of feelings into just a few words, beautifully composed on the page.
Also, this particular Grace may be my new favourite namesake in a novel.

There are many more books I read and adored this year, obviously, but these are just a few that stood out to me. THEY ARE NOT a Top 10, I'd never be able to do that...putting books in order of preference seems barbaric and impossible. 

I managed to capture a lot of my New Year TBR in my latest TBR-type post, however there are so many more I had forgotten to include...c'est la vie. 

Counting Stars, by Keris Stainton (AM READING/LOVING CURRENTLY, YAY!)
The Wolf Wilder, by Katherine Rundell.
The Sin Eater's Daughter, by Melinda Salisbury. 
Unbecoming, by Jenny Downham.
The Sky is Everywhere, by Jandy Nelson.
Glass Sword, by Victoria Aveyard. 
The Big Lie, by Julie Mayhew.
Spectacles, by Sue Perkins. 
Waiting for Callback, by Perdita & Honor Cargill. all of the amazing books my gorgeous friend Michelle sent me after I won a giveaway on her awesome blog! 

And all of the perfect books my lovely and extremely generous Secret Santa (Luna!) sent me for UKBBSS...

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