Category Archives: Books

Blightborn (The Heartland Trilogy)

Blightborn cover image
Blightborn, the second volume in the Heartland Trilogy (Image from


‘Cael McAvoy dreams of flying….Sometimes the dream is interrupted by the reality of falling’

When we left Cael McAvoy in Under The Empyrean Sky, volume one in this trilogy, his reality had well and truly fallen apart.

Life in the Heartland, an arid expanse dominated by genetically modified corn production, endured by overworked quietly desperate humanity, and overseen by the remote repressive Empyrean from their floating cities in the sky, had thrown up some surprises for Cael, his family and friends.

After a dramatic turn of events, Cael, Lane Moreau and Rigo Cozido are on the run when we join them at the start of Blightborn. The formidable resources of the Empyrean are being marshalled by Proctor Simone Agrasanto. Pursuit will be ruthless and relentless.

Just as the three amigos seem on the verge of eluding trouble, author Chuck Wendig works his magic and expertly ratchets up the tension and injects some juicy dollops of drama.

He also introduces some new characters who add extra layers to the story. In  particular, we get to see inside Empyrean society, and gradually learn more of the origins of both these lordly sky dwellers and the lowly Heartlanders far below.

Boxelder we learned in the previous instalment had ‘the tavern, the Tallyman’s office, the doctor’s, the general store,  –  and, beyond that, not much else but the swaying corn’.

Ormond Stirling Saranyu, one of the flying cities,  on the other hand is a place of mansions and opulence. ‘The afternoon sun caught in a hundred skyscraper windows. The many hills with their many homes. Skybridges and elevator conduits.’ ‘Everything clean. Cloud swept. Beautiful. Nothing like the Heartland’.

Not everyone in the dirt below is happy to accept that the Empyrean ‘have everything where we have nothing’ or that they must be resigned to the drudgery and hopelessness of life as they know it: ‘The dead earth. The empty sky. The gods in their chariots above the peasant’s heads.’

Unrest is brewing in the Heartland. But the Empyrean also have their own plans. An epic clash is inevitable.

As change unfolds Cael McAvoy, Lane Moreau, Rigo Cozido, Merelda McAvoy and Gwennie Shawcatch are front and centre in events.

Joining them are some memorable new friends – as well as an array of sinister new enemies. Telling which is which is not always easy.

This second part of the trilogy then is even better than the first. The action occurs in a number of places, not just Boxelder. More is revealed of how this world came to be as it is, but not everything; mystery remains for part three. Female characters feature prominently in all of the story’s plots and subplots – and as could be expected from the writer of the ‘Miriam Black’ books, these women are strong, independent and resourceful.

Most importantly the essence of Blightborn hinges ultimately on human relationships and change, growing up and trying to find out who we are – themes to which all of us can relate. The characters live in a world which like our own is not black and white, a complex world where change happens even when we don’t want it, and not always in the way we like even when we do want it. Confusion, doubt and even fear trouble all of the protagonists in this book at some stage – and those who are the most certain and definite are some of the least likeable.

The book has great pace, a compelling storyline, beguiling characters, tension that’s almost torture, satisfying depth, seriously sizzling dialogue and some wise reflections on human nature and the vagaries of life and love.

Part three of the series is eagerly awaited!









Under the Empyrean Sky

Floating havens above a corn filled landscape
Corn on the mob


Corn. Sweet, wholesome, goodness.

Right? Wrong.

Not in the world of Cael McAvoy, his family and neighbours.

Their hardscrabble settlement of Boxelder is besieged by corn. ‘Hiriam’s Golden Wonder’, a genetically modified version of the plant dominates everything about life in the town and far beyond it – an area known as The Heartland.

What lies beyond very few people know. Schools have been abolished, travel is forbidden.

The Heartland, and its people, exists solely to provide processed corn products, fuel and raw material to The Empyrean – whose floating cities (flotillas) pass across the sky-high above Cael and Boxelder.

‘Where would the Heartlanders be without the Empyrean watching over them? Without Empyrean science, without guidance, without a system of order in place?’ says an Empyrean representative.

Cael on the other hand sees the same situation as ‘callous control’ with a ‘crushing grip’. Like the stereotypical teenager Cael is angry at pretty much everything. Unlike most teenagers he has very good reason. He can look ahead to nothing but endless days of working in the corn processing facility. His job will be allocated, his wife will be chosen, his whole future decided without any say on his part – ‘that’s life in the Heartland’ as the saying goes.

The Heartlanders best case scenario is to survive as virtual serfs for as long as possible. How long that will be is debatable, but life will most likely be relatively short and death comes in many forms – accidents and  back-breaking toil might be the sweetest release, a merciful way to avoid the cruel tumours and sicknesses caused by chemically contaminated land, water and food.

Cael is furious too at his father, Arthur ‘Pops’ McAvoy, who seems to placidly accept his lot without objection. He works at the processing plant, with a deformed hip to show for his troubles. Cael’s mother is an invalid hovering at the edge of consciousness, her body completely ravaged by tumours. Merelda his sister regularly runs away, endangering the family’s already precarious existence by threatening to draw the attention of the town’s Empyrean Overseers, or ‘Babysitters’ as they are derisively called by the Heartlanders.

Scarcely anything exciting ever happens in Boxelder. The one source of fun and freedom for Cael and his friends – Lane Moreau, Rigo Codizo and Gwennie Shawcatch – is scavenging among the corn for salvageable parts of abandoned and broken machinery. They do this not on foot but using a boat – however this boat floats not on water but above the corn, using a rudimentary variety of the technology that keeps the massive Empyrean flotillas safely airborne. These enjoyable excursions along with their teenage freedom will end soon though – working full-time will leave them too tired or too ill for such jaunts.

Little seems set to change for Cael, his family and friends. Their paths are set, their fates ascertained. Yet not everything is as fixed as it might seem in the Heartland. Surprises and shocks are in store…..

Author Chuck Wendig frequently, articulately and very wittily offers excellent and well grounded advice on the theory of good writing at his terribleminds blog.  In Under The Empyrean Sky he has ably demonstrated in practice his own enviable talent in the art of not only good but compelling writing by producing a world which is familiar yet utterly different, a society with some recognisable features but many which astound and amaze, and a plot which never lets the reader take anything for granted.

A sterling example of matching wise words with deft deeds!




The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden book cover design by Jonas Jonasson

“…in protest against her parents…For instance she wrote her short English essay in German and claimed in a History exam that the Bronze Age began on the 14 February 1972”

If you’ve read The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson’s first book, the style in his follow-up novel will be familiar. For those who haven’t read his breakout work, the fact that he has retained this same approach is a very good thing.

The Swedish author has a way with words, with ideas and plot turns and twists, that are all his own. Something akin to Terry Pratchett, Jonasson can convey deep thoughts about serious topics with a light touch, one that’s often also laugh out loud funny.

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden is not quite as funny as the original book, but very good fun none the less. Jonasson relishes unexpected developments and story direction, constantly surprising his reader with his inventiveness.

Not to give away too much of the story but if you can think of another book that could conjure up a situation where the slightly drunk Prime Minister of Sweden is rooting out potatoes in full evening dress in a remote field while nearby the equally merry Swedish King takes an axe to the necks of three chickens you have one over on me.

Central to the story is a nuclear bomb that links the lives of all the characters, starting with the main protagonist Nombeko – a gifted young girl living on her wits in apartheid South Africa when we meet her first. A series of extraordinary events as well as some extremely ordinary ones involve South African government officialdom, Israeli intelligence, a family of Chinese counterfeiters, two Swedish twins with a secret and an angry young girl and her (possible) Countess Grandmother in rollicking waves of adventure, unexpected complication and frequent mayhem. Not forgetting the Swedish King and PM’s nocturnal culinary efforts.

In common with Pratchett, Jonasson has a gift for depicting reality as the most absurd perspective of all. Everything else he creates and conjures up seems remarkably reasonable in comparison, and this contrast tells us a great deal about our own world and how odd really are the things we take for granted as ‘normal’.

A charming, warm, and sweet tale of what life can throw at a person – and what they can throw back.


Reblog from Quartz: The reason every book about Africa has the same cover

I’d never really noticed this pattern before but like many things once it was pointed out it seemed obvious:  the almost ever present acacia tree and a savannah sunset on the cover of books about Africa. Why?

Acacia tree on an African savannah
The tree that launched a thousand books (Reuters/Ed Harris)

In short,” the post said, “the covers of most novels ‘about Africa’ seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.”



Image by Simon Stevens


What makes the persistence of these tired and inaccurate images even worse is that we’re living in an era of brilliant book design (including this lovely, type-only cover for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah; her novel Half of a Yellow Sun begins the collage above). So why is it so hard for publishers of African authors to rise beyond cliché?


I asked Peter Mendelsund—who is an associate art director of Knopf, a gifted cover designer, and the author of a forthcoming book on the complex alliances between image and text—to help me understand how the publishing industry got to a place where these crude visual stereotypes are recycled ad nauseam. (Again and again, that acacia tree!)


He points first to “laziness, both individual or institutionalized.” Like most Americans, book designers tend not to know all that much about the rest of the world, and since they don’t always have the time to respond to a book on its own terms, they resort to visual clichés. Meanwhile, editors sometimes forget what made a manuscript unique to begin with. In the case of non-Western novels, they often fall back on framing it with “a vague, Orientalist sense of place,” Mendelsund says, and they’re enabled by risk-averse marketing departments.


“By the time the manuscript is ready to be produced, there’s a really strong temptation to follow a path that’s already been trod,” he says. “If someone goes out on a limb and tries something different, and the book doesn’t sell, you know who to blame: the guy who didn’t put the acacia tree on the cover.”


He adds that the underlying issue can be more pernicious: “Of course, there are the deeply ingrained problems of post-colonialist and Orientalist attitudes. We’re comfortable with this visual image of Africa because it’s safe. It presents ‘otherness’ in a way that’s easy to understand. That’s ironic, because what is fiction if not a way for you to stretch your empathetic muscles?”


That’s a reasonable diagnosis. But how to solve the underlying problem? Certain books are allowed to stand on their own; others—too often those by African, Muslim, or female authors—are assigned genre stereotypes. Mendelsund suggests that designers should start by initiating conversations with editors about what makes a book unique, so that they have something to respond to visually. And if that fails, and designers are pressured to use an offensive stereotype, Mendelsund says, “We can tell them that it’s racist, xenophobic, whatever.”


But change comes slowly. One day, Mendelsund predicts, there will be a best-selling novel by an African writer that happens to use a different visual aesthetic, and its success will introduce a new set of arbitrary images to represent Africa in Western eyes. “But right now, we’re in the age of the tree,” he says. “For that vast continent, in all its diversity, you get that one fucking tree.”’

‘Good Books Cheap’ – the Pelicans Return

Image of the first three new Pelican books
The first of the new Pelican books


Great to hear that Penguin Books are bringing back their Pelican imprint – pale blue covered non-fiction books at relatively cheap prices.

They’re also originally commissioned from authors, so good news for aspiring non-fiction writers as well as readers!

The Guardian has more as well as a short history of what was, and might be again, a cultural icon…









Some excellent advice from Chuck Wendig

We all know we’re going to die. It’s definite. Inescapable. Unavoidable. But it’s someday. Over the horizon. In the distance. Until it’s not.

Best not to wait too long to do all of the things we want to do. Chuck Wendig has a great blog post today on that really strikes home, reminding us time is always short:

“Over there? That’s your gravestone.

It’s there, on the hill. Or in the valley. Maybe under a cherry blossom tree or by a babbling creek. Or maybe you’re a sack of kitty-litter-looking ashes on a mantle somewhere. It doesn’t much matter because, drum roll please, you’re dead.

Or, rather, you’re going to be dead. One day.

No, I’m not threatening you. I don’t have to. Life paired with time have together earned that pleasure. Unless you’re some kind of vampire, you were born with a ticking clock whose watchface was turned inward so that none can see it.

You are totally going to die.

I’m not Miriam Black. I don’t know when. Might be 50 years from now. Or ten. Or ten weeks, days, minutes. I certainly don’t know how. Cancer might juice your bowels. A hunk of frozen shit might fall off a 747 turbine and crush you in your recliner. Bear attack. Meth overdose. Choke on a hot wing. Stroke. Heart attack. Robot uprising. No fucking clue. And I don’t want to know the specifics. I don’t need to know the specifics because we are all given over to the universality of a limited mortality. The one aspect of our lives that is utterly and irrevocably shared is death.

That’s grim shit, I know.

I’ve spent a goodly portion of my life worrying about death. Or, more to the point, about how it’ll get me. I picture death less as a comical specter and more as the black dog of myth, always hounding my steps, ducking out of sight as I look for it, but always regaining my scent and waiting for the opportune moment to strike. Sometimes this manifested as a kind of hypochondria, a condition no doubt exacerbated by a Reader’s Digest Medical Guidebook I found in my house when I was around 10 years old, a book whose graphic flowcharts aimed to help you discern the truth of your symptoms — though of course they usually ended up convincing me I had some kind of rare tropical doom parasite. (For a while I seriously thought I had worms in my face. For no reason other than my teeth had left marks on the inside of my cheeks and became convinced that these divots were WORM TUNNELS. So, y’know, thanks Reader’s Digest.)

If it wasn’t hypochondria plaguing me, it was sheer existential terror. The realization that one day everything I know and everything that I am would one day hit an invisible wall and drop off into a deep, black sea trench, never to be reclaimed. And maybe never remembered — after all, all those who care about me would one day be dead, too.

I know. WHEE, right?

There comes a point when all this either was going to keep pinning me to the ground like a heavy boot or it was going to be the thing that I could push past or even use as a springboard to fling my dopey ass forward. One day it occurred to me that this revelation about death could be viewed as something representative of freedom. A grim, unruly freedom, one with a somewhat grisly underpinning, but freedom just the same. Because we all share this thing. We all share the reality of an impending death. We are all dying. Right now. All part of a cycle of birth, life, decay, death, all part of the washing machine tumble of chaos and order, structure and entropy, light and dark.

None of us — not a single one — are promised tomorrow.

We share that because we share the possibility of death.

But we share something else, too.

We share This Fucking Moment Right Fucking Here.

This one. The one with the masking tape across it and the permanent marker signifying:


We all get now.

We all get the moment in which we exist.

A lot of you are writers. (Or “aspiring” writers, a term I hate so bad it causes a sudden chafing of my testicular region as if some surly ghost were rubbing a spectral bootbrush against my nads even as I sit here and type.)  And whenever I talk to writers and we get down to the nitty gritty of what they’re doing or hope to one day accomplish, they’re often mired in a sense of fear. Paralyzed sometimes by the what if’s and the big blinky question marks that look as much like a swooping scythe as they do a piece of punctuation. And a lot of writers are forward-thinking or future-leaning, expecting that the day will come that everything will work itself out and life’s magic highway will present them with an endless series of green lights…

…and they’ll finally get to do what they want to do.

My father lived his life in preparation for his retirement. Set everything up so that he could retire a bit early, move out West, and live his remaining years with the pleasurable, simple life for which he had waited. Of course, he died a few years into that retirement — so, while he had the privilege of living some of his dream, it sure wasn’t much when seen in the shadow of an entire life prepared for it. Too little time in the sun, too long in the anticipation of it.

Writers, artists, anybody: you are not promised that time.

You are promised right now.

I’ve said this before and I like to give a lot of these go forth and do it, please excuse my Doc Marten firmly ensconced in your spongy squat-grotto talks, and this one probably isn’t all that different from things you may have heard me say before. But it’s a thing I sometimes like to remind myself, and since this blog is primarily me-yelling-at-me, it’s a thing I’m going to remind you about, too.

You’re going to die, writer-types.

But you have now, right now, so use it.

And you may think that this advice for the aspiring-types only, for those novitiates on the Sacred Penmonkey Order, but it’s not. It’s for you story-seasoned word-brined motherfuckers, too. Because writers with careers short and long, we sometimes get a little lost in the weeds. Lost in things outside of us. Trends and markets, industries and Amazon rankings. We find ourselves jealous of other writers or fearful of the uncomfortable arranged marriage between the forces of art and commerce. Sometimes we forget that we have things we want to do, stories we want to tell, and we lose that in that the briar-tangle of uncertainty and anxiety and existential unease. Because just as we can as humans worry about the very nature of our existence, we can worry about our existence as writers, too. We worry about how long we’ll be allowed to do what we do. We wonder when someone will figure out that we’re stowaways on this ship, imposters at this party, strangers in our own chosen lives.

None of that really matters. I mean, it matters in little ways — in intellectual, commercial ways. But it doesn’t always help you to tell the tales you want to tell. It doesn’t always force that quantum entanglement between your ass molecules and the chair protons so that you can create some motherfucking art quarks, does it?

You can’t control a lot of the things you’re worried about.

You can maybe adjust them, or nudge them.

But you can’t control publishing. Or the audience. Or bookstores.

You can’t control whether a fridge-sized shit-glacier will drop off a plane and kill you.

What you can control is the height of your chair. You can control a little of your comfort as you sit at the desk — or stand, if you prefer. You can control which word processor you use, or which notebook you prefer. You can control what words you put down, in what order, and what story grows up from those words. You can control the work. That’s yours. Everything else is open to your occasional influence, but the one thing you can control is that you are writing this book.

And you have that control right now.

In this moment.

Not tomorrow.

Not in ten years.

Because you don’t know what happens then.

You do know that one day, it’ll all be over. And I can’t speak to what comes after — Heaven, Hell, Hades, Happy Hunting Grounds, Toledo — but that’s not the point. You don’t live for the end. You live for the moment. You live for this thing you want to do.

So, do it.

Right now.

You’re temporary.

Use that to create something permanent — or, at least, closer to permanent than you.

Let death motivate you. Let your inevitable demise impel you forward.

Go. Create something. Be the best version of yourself. Now. Here. This very second.

While you’re still alive.”