Tag: books

Two Months After

After sharing some reflections on the publishing journey one week before the publication of my debut novel, I intended to update you on how things were going one week after publication. The fact that it has taken me two months to have the time, headspace, and energy to do this probably says more about what it’s like to be a debut author than anything I might have written, but here we are. Two months after.

In fairness, this delay is not just due to publishing. June was an incredibly chaotic month for me, with a number of major Happenings, including one that resulted in having to move house in July — my fourth move since November. I can tell you one thing for sure: I’m getting really sick of moving house. There were also some positive events — my sister getting married being one of them — but it certainly felt like a month best described as ‘everything happens so much’.

I coped with all the stress in my usual way, which is to say, I accidentally wrote an entire novel that I was not supposed to be writing and which I had completely not intended to write. I call it the ‘unintentional vampire novel’, because I wasn’t even sure it was a novel when I started it, and a week later I had 88k that its earliest readers reassure me is not completely terrible. Now, however, I’m mired in edits for the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin, and so it seemed like a good time to procrastinate by telling you how things are going.

Let’s start with the highlights:

Publication day

I visited a number of bookshops in Central London with my lovely publicist Eve, and got to sign books and generally feel a bit special. Despite one bookshop losing the stack of books they assured us they had, this was a good way to make the day feel a bit special, and avoid the sense of anticlimax that I know some writers feel on the day itself.

Finn Longman wearing a grey tank top and a black sparkly sunhat, leaning on a very large stack of copies of The Butterfly Assassin, grinning at the camera.
Signed books at Easons on O’Connell St, Dublin

Dublin International Literature Festival

Literally the next day I flew out to Dublin, again with Eve, for my first literary festival. Although we had some struggles with the hotel booking on arrival, and then I had an absolutely nightmarish journey home via Dublin Airport and its newsworthy queues, we had a great day in Dublin on the Saturday visiting bookshops, signing a few books (or many books, in the case of Easons on O’Connell Street), and then heading over to the festival for my panel in the late afternoon. The audience was small, but that was probably a good thing for my first event, and at least I got to talk to some readers at more length afterwards than I would have been able to with a larger audience!

Book launch

I had my book launch a few days after publication, at Housman’s — a wonderful radical non-profit independent bookshop with strong pacifist connections and a really interesting selection of books. Despite being a very stabby book about murder, The Butterfly Assassin is considerably influenced by my own pacifism, and this felt like the perfect venue to get up on a chair and yell about how the arms trade is immoral and why we shouldn’t be recruiting sixteen-year-olds into the military. It was all fairly last-minute and I was terrified that nobody would come, but they did! I signed books! We had a cake with my book cover on it! It was hardly a huge glamorous party such as people tend to think of book launches as being, but it was just right for this book, and Housman’s was the perfect venue. They still have some signed copies, if you’re interested in ordering one.

Finn Longman sitting at a table holding up a copy of The Butterfly Assassin.
Signing books at my book launch in Housman’s, being photobombed by Eve, my publicist.

Visiting bookshops

Speaking of signed books, whenever I pass a bookshop that carries The Butterfly Assassin, I offer to sign it. So far nobody’s turned me down, though one did ask for ID (I suggested they checked the author photo in the back of the book). Occasionally, it’s turned into a quest in which we search for the copies the Waterstones website claims they have — I’ve found TBA in Adult, but also in 9-12, where it definitely doesn’t belong. So at this point, I think it’s my moral duty to check it’s correctly shelved wherever it might be ;) It’s always exciting to find my book in a shop, especially when it’s on a table or a face-out. I’ve also loved having people send me pictures of it in their local bookshops.

Reviews and nice messages

I’m trying to learn to stay off Goodreads — it’s not a healthy place for an author to be spending a lot of time, especially while trying to focus on a sequel, because you end up with too many voices in your head telling you to add more of this, have less of that, and all the while you’re hyper-analysing a review that’s 100% positive and yet only gave you four stars. (What does it take, book reviewers?! What does it take?!) But I have loved seeing some positive reviews, and reflections from people who totally got the book and everything I was trying to do with it. I’ve had some amazing messages from readers and friends, and I’ve been particularly touched by the messages from friends I’d fallen out of touch with, who’ve nevertheless picked up the book and told me how much they enjoyed it.

I was also featured in The Guardian as one of their best YA books of the month, and received a lovely review in the Irish Times, too, which is more than I could have expected from mainstream media!

My first real school visit

Some authors find school visits and assemblies terrifying. Personally, I love to have a captive audience to talk at — I get to talk, they can’t leave, it’s my dream communication scenario. I did my first ‘official’ school visit recently and, while it’s still a little anxiety-inducing to get up in front of a bunch of fifteen-year-olds and talk to them about your book, I think it went well. It was great to sign books afterwards, too, including a pile for the school’s LGBTQ soc. I appreciated how supportive their teachers seemed to be, giving me the chosen names of trans and nonbinary students to write in the books, although it was an all-girls’ school. A lot’s changed since I was at school (we didn’t even have an LGBTQ club of any sort), and it’s nice to see, when the world around us feels increasingly focused on weaponising a culture war against trans people.

YALC

My biggest event! I went to the Young Adult Literature Convention in 2016 as a reader, but this was my first time there as an author. It’s a pretty different experience: hanging out in the Green Room rather than queuing for signings (although I did a little of the latter); speaking on a panel instead of watching it from the audience (though I did that too). I loved having the chance to talk to readers in person, especially some that I’d encountered online before, and signed a fair few books. I also got the chance to tell Jonathan Stroud how much his books meant to me, which was, to be honest, as much of a highlight.

Finn Longman wearing a grey tank top, dark trousers and a black sunhat, as well as a white FFP3 mask, standing with their arms outstretched in front of oversized letters reading YALC. In the background is a wall made of huge book spines.
At the Young Adult Literature Convention 2022

So those are some of the highlights — I’m sure there are more that I’ve forgotten, or which have happened behind-the-scenes and therefore aren’t public knowledge yet — and it can often feel, on social media, like that’s all there is to it. Like every author in their debut month is having a whirlwind of events and reviews and sales, and they must be having a good time, so there’s everything to be jealous of and if you’re not having a great time, you must be doing something wrong.

Well, there’s more to it than that, and I’m not going to dwell on it, but I will say: there are days when the comparisonitis is hard. Where all I can think about is how other people’s books seem to be in more bookshops than mine. When all I can focus on is how few people are talking about my book on Twitter, or posting pictures of it on Instagram; how books that aren’t even out yet have more reviews and more adds on Goodreads; how I fall between the cracks of awards and lists because of being upper YA — too old for the teen-focused awards, too young for the adult ones.

Everyone feels this, I think. Authors with small publishers look enviously at authors with big publishers. Authors with small deals at big publishers look enviously at authors with big deals at any publishers. Comparison is the thief of joy — I’ve always known it, but I’ve felt it more in the last two months, and I’m trying to remember that I’ve achieved something I worked towards for thirteen years, and I owe it to my younger self to appreciate that for a moment instead of always wanting more.

But it’s hard! Especially when publishing is frequently opaque: authors know a lot less about what’s going on behind the scenes than people generally assume we do. Well-meaning friends ask me how the book is doing, and the truth is, I have absolutely no idea, because I won’t get sales figures for a while yet. All I can do is guess based on a mixture of social media, Goodreads, Amazon rankings, Gardners stock figures, and pulling numbers completely out of nowhere, the last of which is probably at least as accurate a figure as the first four combined. As somebody who likes to be in control and to have all the information about everything, this is a challenge, and not one I can do anything to change.

In the absence of hard figures and explicit statements like, ‘Yes, you are selling exactly as expected,’ or, ‘Your book is a failure and we regret ever publishing it,’ it’s easy to fixate on the information I do have, like how many people are posting about it, and that way madness lies. Trust me.

And then there are my book two edits.

Ugh. The dreaded book two.

Look, I had mostly avoided the book two angst, by virtue of having written the book back in 2014 when I wrote book one. This meant that completing a draft and sending it to my editor was wayyyyy easier than it seemed to be for a lot of my friends, because, well, it wasn’t a first draft, it was a fourth draft, and that’s easy enough, right?

Unfortunately, the editing process has proved… challenging, in part because this is still, fundamentally, a book that I wrote in 2014, despite some plot changes. The changes were superficial and the foundations were weak, a problem I’d had with book one and solved by rewriting the book from the ground up — before I got the book deal. It turns out, fixing those kinds of issues within a six-week structural edit deadline is a whole lot harder, and I have shed a number of tears and had a number of breakdowns as I attempt to work out how best to do that.

I should add: most of these problems were ones that I identified, rather than my editor ripping the book apart. I think a lot of people see editors as these fierce beings who can instantly spot every flaw and will eviscerate an author’s work, making them feel like failures. What actually happens is a lot gentler at her end than that: she’ll say, “I’m not really following X’s motivation for doing Y. Can we make this clearer?” And then I look at X’s motivation for doing Y, realise it makes absolutely no sense because Z, spend three days trying to save it, and eventually realise I need to rip out that entire plot thread and rework it. Unfortunately, that thread will then turn out to be fundamental to an entire section of the book, and thus I have now pulled out its guts and it’s going to need major surgery to fix it.

In other words, she believed I knew what I was doing; I’m the one who eviscerated my own work and made myself feel like a failure. Lmao. So that’s fun.

Two consecutive comments on a Word document reading "I HATE YOU SO MUCH YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW" and "I'm so done"
One of my earliest beta readers commenting on a book I wrote in 2014, or me about my past self’s decisions? Who can say.

And then, on top of that, there is the fact that it is much harder to write a sequel when people are telling you what you think of book one. Listen, it is impossible to write for every reader, especially when they wildly contradict each other — one review will compliment the worldbuilding and description, the next will say that there’s not nearly enough of either; one review will say they love every character and found the friendships emotive and engaging, the next will say they didn’t care about any of them because the relationships were too shallow. You can’t win!

But more than that: you can’t even try to win. Writing is a collaborative process, but that doesn’t mean it’s done by committee, or to please everybody who might encounter it. I am trying, at all times, to push the voices out of my head that demand something from the story I’m not intending to give. It’s not their book. It’s mine.

It’s just a lot easier to feel that about The Butterfly Assassin — a book that I am proud of, a book I’m currently listening to on audio again and feeling quietly pleased with — than it is to feel it about the sequel, which is currently a mess, and which I don’t totally know how to fix right now.

I will fix it. This is an inevitable stage of editing, and I’ve been through it enough times to know that the “hating every word on the page” phase is both real and temporary. Doesn’t mean I enjoy it while it’s happening, and having to live up to book one puts a level of pressure on that I haven’t experienced before. Listening to the audiobook is helping me keep the rhythms of book two’s prose consistent with book one’s, but it’s also reminding me of all the ways that the first book is polished and good, making the contrast… stark.

Mostly, however, I would like to extend a massive apology to every author I secretly judged for years when they talked about their deadlines. Six weeks is not long enough. I agree. I get it now. I had, like, six months to draft this book, and it took me less than one month, but man do I need longer for the editing stage, because it turns out I do all of my thinking after the story is on the page, and not before. Next time, I’m hoping I can wrangle things so that I get less drafting time and more editing time, because I’m in hell.

And with that in mind, I should get back to my edits.

But first: to everyone who has already bought The Butterfly Assassin, thank you so much. Thank you to those who’ve read and reviewed it (reviews on Waterstones and Amazon are super helpful, if you have a minute to leave them!). If you’ve taken a nice picture of it for social media, thank you; if you’ve messaged me to say you enjoyed it, thank you for that too. The small notes of encouragement in my Tumblr inbox have been keeping me going through my edits, and I am very grateful for them.

And if you haven’t picked it up yet, please consider it! Debut authors need all the help we can get.

One Week Before

It’s now only a week until The Butterfly Assassin is out in the world, which is a bizarre and surreal experience at the same time as feeling utterly generic. I’m not experiencing anything that hundreds and thousands of other debut authors haven’t already expeirenced before me, and still I find myself reaching for the words to try and articulate the oddities and emotions of the lead up to publication.

It feels bizarre in part because this is a book that I first wrote in 2014, a book that I have rewritten at least once every year of my adult life — except this year, and now never again. Sometimes that experience has felt like co-writing a book with a younger version of me. It’s a book by 2021!me, but it’s also a book by 2014!me, and those two versions of me were not only at substantially different stages in their lives, but also had different ideas about what they valued in a story and what they wanted to achieve. Now, as I let it go out into the hands of readers, I wonder which version of me they’ll find on the page, or if they’ll only see my characters, and nothing of me at all.

It feels bizarre, too, because publishing is fundamentally a bizarre experience, full of confusion and surprises. Everybody’s journey is slightly different, even when they’re at the same publisher, and it can be impossible to predict what’s going to happen for you and when by looking at what other people experience. In some ways, publication has snuck up on me, unmarked by any major pre-pub buzz. I have never had a viral tweet. Social media isn’t clamouring for my book. I feel like an unknown, shouting into the void…

… but at the same time, I know that isn’t true. Friends and reviewers have read the book, and some have said lovely things about it. Fellow debuts yell at me to stop obsessing over a minor critical remark in a Goodreads review, telling me that my book is good, that the reviewer is wrong, that I should stay away from reviews in the first place.

(This isn’t going to happen. I know it’s the accepted wisdom, but for me personally, not knowing what people think is currently much worse than knowing, even when I spiral slightly over passing criticisms. That may change, and then I’ll re-evaluate, but right now, I don’t find it particularly useful to avoid the whole thing entirely.)

I worry about how the book will be received. I worry that a YA book with no romance won’t sell, because people want to ship the main characters. I worry that it won’t be queer enough, that those who picked it up hoping for explicit ace representation will think me a fraud. I worry that it’s too dark — too stabby, too much about trauma, too unwilling to let violence be sanitised and sexy. I worry, too, that people will think it is glamourising violence, rather than being a story about somebody trapped in a destructive cycle with no other options.

I worry because that’s what I do. And at the same time, I go through periods of calm: knowing, in my mind, that I’m proud of the book, which gives me the confidence to feel like if readers don’t enjoy it, that’s their problem, because I know I did what I set out to do, and it’s simply a case of whether that’s compatible with what they’re looking for. I flip-flop between these two states of being on a daily basis: serenity and anxiety, acceptance and desperation. I know what I wrote and why, and if people don’t like it, so what. But also, if it’s not universally adored, I will perish. I exist on a continuous rollercoaster from one end of the spectrum to the other.

I am at all times desperate for information that I have no real way of interpreting. How many copies are bookshops stocking? Oh, is that good? Bad? Normal? Is this a good marketing plan? I have no idea. I’ve never seen another marketing plan to compare it to. How much should I be taking charge of my own promotion and attempting to get the word out about the book? Will going into bookshops and talking to them myself help at all? It seems to, but I can’t visit every bookshop in the world, or even in the city. Should I target the chains or the indies? Local bookshops or large bookshops? What’s my best plan?

I don’t know. I send a lot of emails asking questions. I bombard the debut group chat with my anxieties and insecurities and they, very patiently, try to reassure me. I order business cards, even though scrawling my details on the back of a receipt was working for me up until now, because they feel like a tangible excuse to approach booksellers. I fail to blog. I feel guilty about that, even though I know that from a publicity point of view, this blog is never going to be the thing that shifts the needle, and from a readership point of view… well, you guys have known me to fall silent for much longer than this.

I think about writing another book, to squeeze a first draft out between now and the arrival of my edits for book two. This would be unwise but I try anyway, attempting to muddle through an opening chapter. It fizzles out. I know the characters but they aren’t talking to me yet; I don’t have a handle on the voice, don’t know how to tell the story. The book is an egg that isn’t ready to hatch, and I need to give it time.

I read a book instead. I read ten books instead, ten full manuscripts from hopeful mentees who applied to Rogue Mentor, my editorial hat firmly on. I discover I enjoy trying to see what a story needs to get closer to its heart, and how to shift the moving pieces around to better achieve the author’s vision. This feels like a useful thing to know about myself, though perhaps none of these authors will vibe with my ideas, in which case, my editorial recommendations may be less useful than I thought. I struggle to narrow down which book I want to mentor, because I have something to say about all of them. The other 78 queries, the books I didn’t request fulls of, haunt me, in case I missed something that would have been a perfect fit. But I had to choose, and no matter how desperate I am to avoid the inside of my head, even I can’t read 88 books in the time I had available.

I try to go back to dance. It helps, having something physical to channel my jitters into, but soon enough my knee gives out on me again and I’m forced to admit that recovery does not mean “deciding I’m better because I’m bored of being injured”. I get out my harp, hoping that can be my offline hobby instead. A string snaps. I replace it. I feel just as full of tension, sagging when the weather changes, waiting to snap under the right pressure.

I try not to make everything into a metaphor, but it’s hard not to.

Pass pages arrive for an academic article being published this summer, and I force my mind back to medieval literature. It protests, the dense prose of my own analysis defeating my anxiety-shortened attention span. That, in turn, makes me feel like a fraud. I judge my academic writing by the standards of my fiction prose, and find it lacking. I judge my fiction by my academic standards for detail, and worry I’ve been unambitious in my worldbuilding. I wonder how many people my book will disappoint, and feel relieved that at least with my article, the number will be smaller, because my field is tiny and because nobody is expecting much of me.

This feels like an unhelpful train of thought, so I attempt to derail it. I don’t succeed.

I go for walks in the woods, when my knee lets me, and that’s something. I learn to identify the trees and flowers around me — hornbeams and oaks and hawthorns, bluebells and wood anenomes. I begin to understand why knights in medieval Arthurian tales tend to run away to the woods when they’re having a rough time of it. It’s a big mood. I resist the temptation to become a woodland hermit, mostly because I’m very allergic to nature and I don’t think I would last very long. I play Pokémon Go instead, and then go home.

I count the days, and they are endless and flying by so fast I can’t catch my breath.

I think: I’m not ready.

I think: I’ve been ready for months, let’s get this over with.

I post another link to pre-order the book, in case people missed it the first hundred times, and try not to feel embarrassed, like I’m begging for their attention. For your attention. For anybody’s attention.

I’m not ready at all, and I’ve been ready forever. One week to go. Perhaps by the time those seven days have passed, I’ll know how to feel about all of it.

March Reading Roundup & Recs

Being the kind of person who is both somewhat underemployed and also not a big watcher of TV (mostly due to my eyeballs being temperamental and full of demons), I read quite a lot. I try to talk about some of the books I’m reading on Instagram, particularly the ones I really like, or where I had an ARC, but since I stopped using Goodreads as a reader, I’ve pulled back from reviewing more broadly. I’m happy with that decision — there’s a weird power balance when you’re also an author which means your opinion is never just another reader’s opinion — but I do think it’s a shame that I’ve read seventy books already this year and not really talked about them that much, so here’s a roundup of some of those I’ve been reading recently. (I’ll probably make this a semi-regular type of post.)

All links in this post are Bookshop.org (UK) affiliate links, so if any of these books take your fancy, ordering from there will support both me and independent bookshops, which feels like a win-win situation. If a book isn’t available from Bookshop, I’ve linked Amazon — again, an affiliate link — for want of a better option.

I won’t be discussing / linking any books I actively disliked, because I’m not about that negativity — if I describe a book here as ‘horrible’, it’s meant as a compliment, because in those cases, I’m fairly sure that’s what the author was aiming for. But there were a few recurring themes this month that characterised all the books that won’t be discussed in this post…

This month, one of my goals was to read more thrillers. My debut is a YA thriller, so I figured I should better acquaint myself with the genre, having largely avoided it during the editing process in order to (a) give my brain a break and (b) avoid comparison. So far, this has been… honestly kind of a mixed bag. I’ve read some brilliant books, but I’ve also been struck by how many thrillers use sexual relationships as a major source of conflict. At best, these are toxic, unhealthy relationships between consenting adults, which can be interesting to read about, even if unpleasant. At worst, though, I’ve read two thrillers featuring sexual abuse of a minor, which was really not what I signed up for. Being a genre that prides itself on dark content, none of the books I’ve picked up in the past month have had any kind of content warnings, and I would probably have preferred if they did — at least I would know in advance what I was getting into, and whether I was in the right headspace for it.

Having said that, I did enjoy being utterly bamboozled by a few books where I could never quite figure out where it was taking me next. Mandy Byatt’s Just Another Liar really caught me out — initially, I’d been thinking maybe I was too young for the book in the sense of the “relatable” problems the characters faced not actually being relatable to me (because I’m young, queer, and single), but then it twisted on me and I lay awake that night thinking about it, putting all the pieces back together, because I realised I’d had them the wrong way around the whole time.

Sarah Bonner’s Her Perfect Twin also left me thinking about it after I’d finished — the way it switches narrator periodically to misdirect the reader and lead you to draw all sorts of conclusions about what, exactly, is going on is very clever, and means every time you think you’ve got to grips with where it’s going, it swerves and goes somewhere else.

I didn’t read any YA thrillers this month that I really loved, but in February I read Tess Sharpe’s The Girls I’ve Been, and really enjoyed that. It’s very twisty and clever, but it never sacrifices character and emotion, which I valued — I was able to get invested, and stay invested, in the characters. There’s some overlap with The Butterfly Assassin, which makes sense (my editor was the UK acquiring editor for this one, which is why I put off reading it so long, because I knew I’d end up comparing them), but the overall vibe is pretty different. Actually, it kind of reminded me of a real-world/contemporary White Cat by Holly Black, although maybe that’s a sign that I haven’t read many books about characters with con artist parents.

One thing I rediscovered while on my Read More Thrillers quest was that there is a difference between books that are good and books that I’ll enjoy reading at that particular moment. Girl A by Abigail Dean is brilliantly well-written — it’s compelling throughout. But it’s also bleak, and dark, and had me crying in a horrified (rather than cathartic) kind of way at one particular revelation. There was a time in my life when I loved that in a book, and anything that managed to emotionally gut me rocketed up my list of favourites. But I’ve mellowed in my old age, and these days I look more for comfort from books, so this one proved a little more than I could handle at this point in time.

If you want a horrible book about horrible people, I also found The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn was one of those: compelling, but in an unpleasant kind of way. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very good, but… again, it had some graphic content that I could have used a warning for (suicide/self harm imagery described at length), and left me rather unsettled.

So what have I been reading for comfort? Well, after I read Girl A I decided I needed a couple of days of reassuring books to help settle my brain, so I turned to KJ Charles, who is ever reliable in that regard, and I reread the Will Darling Adventures. It feels reductive to describe this trilogy as Romance, because while it absolutely is that, it’s also a pulp adventure story with spies, communists, secret societies, and all manner of other shenanigans, set in the 1920s. I love the way KJ Charles has these dual-genres going on. Some of her books will be romance novels… but also a fantasy book, or a murder mystery, or, in this case, an adventure story. I still mark them all in my spreadsheet as Romance, because I only have one genre box, but the vibe can vary considerably.

Anyway, I had a good time rereading the Will Darling books (beginning with Slippery Creatures), and I also reread another KJ Charles book, Spectred Isle. This one’s fantasy, as well as romance, with an archaeologist protagonist reluctantly going along with his employer’s superstitious interest in certain locations… only to find they are, actually significant, and that he’s getting all tangled up in a supernatural world he knew nothing about. It’s delightful. It has some dark moments and some tension, but the reassuring thing about a fantasy novel that’s actually a romance novel is that you know it’ll end up okay, because that’s what the genre requires. Perfect comfort-reading.

Speaking of fantasy, I was lucky enough to get an ARC of Rory Power’s adult fantasy novel, In A Garden Burning Gold, which comes out next week. Rory was my mentor during Author Mentor Match, and helped me turn The Butterfly Assassin from a mess into something that would actually be potentially publishable, so I am obviously biased towards her as an author. But Garden is genuinely great. I particularly loved the worldbuilding, and the magic system. It features peculiar, time-consuming, impractical magic — sewing the constellations each and every night, painting the shadows throughout the day — which is both bizarre and firmly integrated into the world it’s creating. I love that. I think more magic should be odd. The ending left me with some unanswered questions, but there’s to be a sequel, so that’s all right. The trouble with an ARC, though, is that it means waiting even longer for the next book…

On the romance front, I also enjoyed The Start of Something by Miranda Dickinson. One character is struggling with chronic pain and limited mobility following an injury, while the other is a Welsh single mum trying to keep her head above water after her ex-husband left her with a pile of debt. Although I don’t love misunderstandings/miscommunication as a main point of conflict, they made sense in this one, where both characters were extremely focused on how they would be perceived by the other, and wont to leap to the wrong conclusions. I also found the chronic pain narrative extremely relatable: what if this doesn’t get better? what if this is just how it is now? are questions I’ve asked myself repeatedly over the last few years, and I really felt that.

I took a detour into sci-fi via a Kindle deal and read A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, which I really enjoyed. I wasn’t expecting to, because I don’t often have the brainpower to manage lots of worldbuilding, but it was great. It reminded me a little of The Goblin Emperor: an outsider with a partial but incomplete understanding of cultural/social norms adapts to a complex political situation quickly and unexpectedly while dealing with their predecessor’s murder, and also there’s interesting linguistic worldbuilding. (In this case, the use of poetry as an essential part of a society’s transmission of information.)

Finally, a few YA reads, hopping back to February. I read Morgan Owen’s The Girl With No Soul, which came out this month, and fortunately, enjoyed it a lot. I say fortunately, because Morgan was incredibly nice about The Butterfly Assassin and I was terrified I wouldn’t like hers in return 😅 But I did, so we’re safe. It contains a great many things that fascinate me, and which I’ve written about or am writing about: souls, beasties made of shadows, guys with a white streak in their hair… (There were a few details where I had to message Morgan a passage from something I’d written and go, “Do we have the same brain?!”) If you want interesting worldbuilding in a YA fantasy that feels both classic and original, this is one for you.

I also read Hell Followed With Us by Andrew Joseph White, which comes out in a few months. This one is… a lot, in the best possible way. It’s a trans post-apocalyptic horror novel where religious extremists have wiped out most of the population. The protagonist is an escapee from the religious community; he’s also undergoing a horrific transformation and turning into a monster. It’s all about bodies, and power over yourself and your identity, and finding strength in community. It’s also, in places, extremely gross, and I had to take a break from reading for a few days because body horror and post-surgical nausea turned out to be a terrible combination. But if you’re not squeamish like me, you’ll probably find the body horror quite fun, and the rest of the book is full of feelings and it’s just… yeah, it’s a lot.

Then, this month, I reread Matt Killeen’s Orphan, Monster, Spy, because a while back I bought the sequel but didn’t remember enough of book one to read it. I’d forgotten how dark it is. It’s about a Jewish girl going undercover to spy on the Nazis, so it was never going to be a walk in the park, but it really doesn’t flinch from the horrors she witnesses. The violence is never gratuitous, I thought, but nor is it sanitised at all. Book two, Devil, Darling, Spy, is similar in that regard, grappling with the evils of colonialism and medical experimentation, among other topics. Both are powerful, dark, and concerned with the issue of whose stories gets told and who gets protected in times of warfare.

I had a couple of lighter reads in February, too. Rachael Lippincott’s She Gets The Girl is a college-set YA with your classic “I’ll help you win her over! Oh, crap, but now I’ve fallen for you” kind of plotline (I say classic not because it’s been overdone, because it hasn’t, but because it’s a solid and delightful trope). The emotional beats of the romance felt earned in a way that a lot of books don’t quite manage, and I believed in the emotions of it. Sophie Gonzales’ Perfect on Paper has a Sex Education vibe, and grapples with the question of whether it’s ethical for a teenager to be giving paid relationship advice; it has an important narrative about grappling with internalised biphobia, and I liked that the character’s sister is casually trans, too.

Finally, this month I reread CG Drews’ The Boy Who Steals Houses, in order to dive into her serialised-on-Patreon sequel, The Kings of Nowhere. I am loving the sequel so far, and having a great many feelings about it; I’m looking forward to the final chapters being posted tomorrow. While I’m late to the serialisation party, I’m glad I waited, because I’m far too impatient to read only a couple of chapters per week! So if you want stories about codependent brothers, found family, autism, and healing after trauma, I recommend checking those out.

Not a lot of nonfiction in this post, mostly because I’ve been cheating on the two nonfiction books I’m currently reading with all of this fiction. I’m hoping to talk more about Fierce Appetites by Elizabeth Boyle (my current read) once I’ve finished it — it might even get its own post, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been reading lately. How about you? Any recommendations for me?


With less than two months to go until The Butterfly Assassin comes out, now is a great time to preorder!

Generic Observations

I’ve been thinking a lot about genre recently.

One of my aims this year is to read a more varied mix of genres and categories than last year. In particularly, I’m aiming to read more nonfiction, although I keep screwing myself over on that front by choosing Extremely Large History Books as my nonfiction choices, which then take me months to get through and require a great deal of concentration. Devil-Land looks like a fascinating take on 17th century England, for example, a period I’ve been hoping to learn more about… but it’s also more than 700 pages of tiny print, and, well, I’m very tired, all the time. I can see it taking me a while.

(By comparison: I raced through Did Ye Hear Mammy Died by Séamas O’Reilly in an evening, and had a great time. It’s a memoir that, as the marketing info says, is a lot funnier than the title makes it sounded. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some pretty poignant observations about grief — but it also made me cackle aloud repeatedly. I need more nonfiction like that in my life.)

Even on the fiction front, which is always going to dominate for me, I wanted to aim for more variety. Last year was very dominated by fantasy and romance, and I was hoping I could shake things up a bit. I’m aiming to read more thrillers now that I’m not so deeply mired in edits for The Butterfly Assassin, and I’ve got a few on my Kindle waiting for me, including a couple by my fellow 2022 debuts. I already read a lot of SFF, and I know from past experience that I don’t do well with creepy books, which largely rules out Horror, so I’m not sure how much I can branch out there. But as I read for comfort rather than heart-pumping excitement most of the time, I’m wondering if I should try and get into cozy mysteries or something. (Recs and genre suggestions welcome!)

Anyway, January was a strong month for reading, mainly because I’m under-employed and still recovering from the absolute wall of fatigue that hit me in December after finishing my MA, moving back to the UK, adjusting to no longer living alone, and dealing with Christmas etc. One of the things about spending large portions of every day in bed and being the kind of person who finds TV gives them photosensitive migraines is that you end up reading a lot.

On the face of it, though, the twenty-eight books I read in January look like they’re not too far off conforming to last year’s pattern. I did reread the entire Alex Rider series for various reasons, and since those are classified as “Action/Adventure”, that threw the genre balance off somewhat, but the rest were predominantly Adult Romance, YA SFF, and one or two Contemporary YAs thrown in for good luck.

But the thing about my reading statistics is that they’re based solely on how I input a book into my spreadsheet. If I’m not sure how it’s classified, I’ll google it to double check, but if it gives me a range of genres, I have to pick one, and I’ll go for whichever seems like a better catch-all term. I decided early on I wasn’t going to go for giving things mixed genres because it would make things too confusing, nor was I going to get into the nitty-gritty of subgenres (not even easy things like distinguishing between “historical” romance and “contemporary” romance), because it would complicate the process of collecting stats.

And that means that the simple one-genre answers can conceal a lot about what a book is actually like. I know that sounds obvious: “not all books within a genre are the same or even similar”. Well, duh. But I read a bunch of KJ Charles books this month, as I often do when I need comfort reading, and I was really struck by how, although they’re primarily historical romance novels and they’re listed in my spreadsheet as Romance, they have other, completely different genres going on in the background.

For example, Think of England and Proper English exist in the same universe, and have overlapping characters. But Proper English is partially a murder mystery novel, with all the tropes that entails: an isolated country house, a body, a houseful of suspects who can’t be allowed to leave, and a heroine intent on solving the murder before the police arrive (in part, to conceal the non-murdery secrets of those in the house). Think of England, on the other hand, isn’t a murder mystery, but it does have espionage and blackmail, giving it a tinge of a thriller’s tension alongside the romance.

And then I read A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, which is listed in my spreadsheet as Fantasy. I had a great time with it — but what it reminded me most strongly of was KJ Charles’ Charm of Magpies series, which would show up in my spreadsheet as Romance. Both contain magic, gay romance, curses, and perhaps most noticeably, a magical bureaucrat dealing with a nonmagical aristocrat who is nevertheless unwillingly connected to the world of magic, set against a backdrop of historical England. So what’s the difference between them? Why is one listed as Romance and one as Fantasy?

Romance is a particular genre with its own conventions, a fact a lot of people seem to overlook when they’re classifying anything and everything with a love story as Romance. (For the last time, The Song of Achilles is not a romance novel, it’s a novel with romance.) I read another fantasy novel this month with a queer romance in it, and despite its happy ending, I wouldn’t have said that one felt like a romance novel. It didn’t have the same rhythm; I didn’t find myself anticipating the beats in the same way that I do when I’ve been reading a lot of historical romances in close succession.

When I say I anticipate the beats, I don’t mean that the books become predictable or that I know what’s going to happen, but there are certain emotional rises and falls that you begin to get used to, and if a book misses one of them — as can be done effectively when the author is deliberately trying to subvert your expectations — it can feel like you’ve missed a step going up the stairs. There are patterns, and there are tropes they have in common. (Queer historical romance novels, for example, will very often have a scene early on where one character recognises that the other one is also interested in their gender, something that has to be ascertained subtly in most time periods if nobody’s going to end up arrested. Later, there’s often a misunderstanding or mistake that leads to a temporary rupture in the relationship which feels irreparable (but won’t be). I could go on, but you get the idea: there’s a particular vibe that you start to recognise over time, if you read a lot of books in the genre in close succession.)

And those tropes and story beats, those narrative rhythms… A Marvellous Light has them, including the happy ending. Maybe they’re not foregrounded in the story the way they would be in one of KJ Charles’ fantasy romance novels, but A Charm of Magpies is still the closest comp I’ve got for it, and it’s what I’d recommend to someone who told me they’d read A Marvellous Light and wanted something else with a similar dynamic. Honestly, I think insofar as there’s a difference of genre at all, it’s simply a matter of marketing.

Again, I know, I’m coming up with all sorts of profound observations here: “genre/category is a marketing tactic, not an intrinsic fact of storytelling”. Wow, Finn, can you bottle this stuff and sell it? It’s not like everybody’s known that since, I don’t know, forever. But there are times when it’s a lot more noticeable than others — such as when you read two books back-to-back in the same genre and realise they have an entirely different vibe, or read two that are supposedly a different genre, and find they’re not so different after all.

Another thing that got me thinking about genre was that I participated in a panel discussion about YA thrillers over on the UK YA Instagram. I’m lucky that there seems to be a big appetite for thrillers and the like in YA at the moment — probably much more than there was in 2014 when I wrote The Butterfly Assassin, since we were still in more of a fantasy boom at that point. But I’m also profoundly ignorant of the genre, not least because there was a lot less of it around when I was a teen (my teenage years were dominated in publishing by post-Twilight paranormal romance, then post-Hunger Games dystopia, then edging into Big Fantasy again towards the end). Add to that the fact that I read almost no thrillers last year because I didn’t feel I could read them while working on The Butterfly Assassin without finding it either distracting or dispiriting — as I said, I hope to change that this year — and I find that currently, when asked for recommendations in my own genre, I have no idea what to suggest.

If I’m honest, I feel guilty about that ignorance! How dare I write a genre I rarely read? I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t know I was writing a thriller when I started. If anything, I thought it was going to be a dystopian novel, and I guess there’s some overlap with that genre when it comes to the worldbuilding, but it wasn’t until I was trying to query and so on that I really had to figure out exactly how to classify it. I found myself particularly looking at people who said they were interested in genre-bending stories, because I wasn’t convinced I was doing a good job of sticking within the bounds of any specific category. It’s far from the only book where I’ve had that problem: I’m a “story first, genre later” kind of writer, and I think that’s probably the way it has to be, unless you’re the very commercially-focused type who can think in terms of marketing from day one. Because that’s what genre is. Marketing.

That marketing shapes titles, cover designs, graphics, advertisements, so to some extent, it must impact on a reader’s perspective of a book. But my book’s being pretty firmly marketed as a thriller, with that dystopian angle coming in from the visual similarities to some of the covers for The Hunger Games, and there are still people shelving it as “fantasy” on Goodreads. At this point, I don’t know what I can say to convince them otherwise. It has the word “assassin” in the title and it’s slightly speculative, and that seems to be enough. They’re going to be disappointed, though, if they’re expecting magic.

(No, I have not yet learned to stay off Goodreads. Yes, I have been haunting the page that tells me what shelves people have added the book to, because it’s currently more or less the only metric by which I can measure how people are responding to the book. I’m also concerned that those adding it to shelves labelled “sapphic” and “wlw” are going to be profoundly disappointed by the total lack of romance — while the central relationship is two girls, it’s definitely presented as a platonic one. But I’ve made no secret of the lack of romance, either, so what else can I do? Absolutely nothing.)

I think the majority of readers think a lot less about genre than writers do. They know the kinds of books they like to read, but they wouldn’t necessarily slot them into a specific box. They’d recognise them unconsciously by those very same marketing decisions — the cover design, the title, the way the blurb is worded. Which works great, until you get a book where genre-dissonant cover choices were made, and suddenly all the reviews are people saying, “This wasn’t what I was expecting…”

I see that happening a lot too: readers judging a book on how closely it matches what they expected of it, rather than by how well it succeeded at doing whatever it was actually doing. I’ve done it myself, I’m sure. If I wanted a comforting low-stress romance novel, I won’t be thrilled if what I get is a dark, gritty story where I have to wade through a character grappling with transphobia and bigotry. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, or that I wouldn’t enjoy it at another time, if that’s what I was looking for — but when I pick something up expecting it to feel like a hug, it can be jarring when instead I get punched in the face.

And those darker themes don’t mean the book stops being a romance novel, which is an important point to note. A book can be the genre it’s marketed as, and still not be in the least bit what you’re expecting when you pick it up. Genre only goes so far to telling you what you’re holding in your hands, because as I oh-so-profoundly observed above, it’s almost like not every book in the same genre is the same and a book can fulfil the conventions without following the same template. Radical.

All of this to say: my spreadsheet tells me I read a bunch of romance novels last month, both historical and contemporary. I did. But one of them was also a murder mystery novel. One of them was about grappling with anxiety and depression. And one of them was marketed and classified as fantasy. Because genre’s… well, I was about to say it’s only half the story, but it’s a lot less than that. It’s only a fragment. Only the door we walk through to get to the book inside. And sometimes there’s more than one door leading to the same story, and sometimes we get lost on the way because we were actually looking for a totally different door, or they’ve re-labelled the floor plan without telling us.

Still. I hope this year my spreadsheet will have a wider variety of doors. But I’m not going to let myself be embarrassed about any of the ones that are already on there, because for the most part, they led me to places I very much wanted to go.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin, which is definitely not a fantasy novel, or support my book-buying habit by tipping me on Ko-Fi.

From Cocoon To Butterfly…

For those who somehow missed it, yesterday saw the cover reveal for The Butterfly Assassin. I say “somehow” not because it was a vast worldwide event, but because I’ve been being insufferable on social media about it, and if you follow me here, there’s a strong chance you follow me elsewhere too.

(Brief digression while I nostalgically reflect on the days when blogs were a completely separate social platform with their own community and I would regularly have conversations in the comments here with people I had absolutely no contact with outside of blog comments. Ah, the old internet. A place I find myself increasingly missing, since every website now seems designed to make me click on ads rather than to actually give me Content.)

Anyway, for those who didn’t see it, here she is:

The cover of The Butterfly Assassin, superimposed on a colourfully painted wall. The cover is mainly black, with a butterfly in the centre with one bright yellow wing and one blue wing. The yellow wing is surrounded by paint splatters, evoking graffiti. The tagline reads "Innocent by day, killer by night".

The colourful background is, obviously, not a part of the cover; it’s a brightly painted wall in Cork City that I photographed one time when I was out taking pictures of the street art around me. I used it for my graphics because I think the colours in it really make the cover pop, and to bring out the vibrant aesthetic that I hope comes through in the writing. I love street art and anything that brightens up cities with a bit of unexpected colour, so there’s a lot of it in the book itself — something I was really keen for the cover to evoke.

The cover reveal signals that everything is now proceeding apace with The Butterfly Assassin — while for some people, their covers are finalised at an early stage, for me, this means that my proof copies are printed and about to go out to other authors and to reviewers so that we can start to hear what people think of the book. Last week, I received a parcel with ten proof copies for myself, and I got to hold the book for myself for the first time.

I don’t think anything quite compares to that, to be honest: having in my hands a physical copy of a book that has for so long been a document on my computer. It’s not the first time I’ve seen my work in print, because I did dabble in self-publishing as a teenager (mainly poetry; all now out of print), but there’s something different about a novel like this, that I’ve been working on for so long… And having not been involved in the process of typesetting and formatting and designing the finished book makes it all the more magical to have that in front of me, because it still has the capacity to surprise me.

How is it, that after almost eight years, I’m still surprised by this book? By the fact that it’s real? By the idea that people will be reading it?

And although it’s exciting, it’s also terrifying. My book is going out into the world, and soon I’ll have to face up to the mortifying ordeal of being reviewed. After writing for so long, and making so many author friends online, I feel a kind of pressure not to disappoint them. I mean, I’ve been bigging it up for all these years — what if they hate it? Will they ever buy one of my books again? Will I be allowed to grow from my debut, or will this be the yardstick by which my skill as a writer is forever measured?

More than the fear of disappointing friends, there’s the even more absurd idea that complete strangers will be picking up this book. At first, it’ll be others in the industry — my publisher will be sending copies to authors they think might enjoy or even endorse it. They know what this process is like, the terror of it, and maybe that’ll soften their responses. But soon enough it’ll be in bookshops (time continues to progress, unfair as that seems), and readers will find it, and that’s a whole new step in the journey.

I’ve been writing a long time, and I’ve called myself a writer since I was thirteen, because a writer to me is somebody who writes. But to be an author — to face up to that scrutiny of reviews and reactions, to be read by those who have never heard of me before — is new, and as daunting as it is exciting. Of course I want to be read: I thrive on reactions from my beta readers. But that doesn’t mean I’m not scared of it.

And maybe a big part of why it scares me is that this is a book I wrote for the first time when I was eighteen, and now I’m about to turn twenty-six, so the process of writing it has gone hand-in-hand with growing from an adolescent into an adult. It’s been part of my life for such a long time, and it’s grown as I have. I’ve learned more about craft, I’ve reworked the whole thing so fundamentally that it’s almost unrecognisable from its first draft, and it is as much the product of twenty-five-year-old me than of eighteen-year-old me.

… but is it? Is this a story I would tell now? Or is this a fragment of an earlier version of me, still half-formed, still figuring out who I was? Maybe both. It feels personal because any book feels personal: there are years of my life embedded in it, and pieces of my heart along with them. Objectively, I know that criticism of my work isn’t criticism of me, but that doesn’t mean it won’t feel like it, if somebody cuts straight to the heart of what makes it my book rather than anybody else’s and decides they don’t like it. But partly the fear is that what they’ll find is a version of me who is no longer here to defend themselves.

Not in the “if anything I’ve said is problematic, it’s because I was young and didn’t know better” sense (if I have made any mistakes, despite my best intentions, I hope I’d be mature enough to own up to them and try and do better in future), but in the sense that it is, on some level, a book born of a particular time in my life, and my narrative choices were shaped by that.

I’m currently rewriting a book that I wrote for the first time in 2013, with characters I created in 2010. Having dismantled the worldbuilding and reconfigured the plot, there’s little left to make this the same book rather than a new one with some of the same characters — and even the characters have grown and changed as I’ve grown and changed. I want different things from my protagonist than I did when I made him; I have different plans for my secondary characters. I’m well aware that I can no longer get inside the head of the seventeen-year-old writer I was when I first wrote the book, nor do I want to: I’m telling a different story now.

It’s an interesting experience: taking an old concept and writing a new book with it. I’ve been writing small, disconnected scenes for these characters for years; I’ve known them longer than many of my friends. But I’m rediscovering them all over again as I write this new book that is also an old book, a first draft that is also a fourth draft.

This is a project I’m currently writing just for me, rather than with plans to seek publication for it — I’m between deadlines, and it’s always been my “background” project, the one I go back to when I have nothing else to work on. (For those who’ve been here a while: it’s part of my Death and Fairies series, if you remember that.) That in itself makes it a fundamentally different experience to the past year of working on The Butterfly Assassin and other books intended for the publishing pipeline.

But what’s really different is that it has become a new book, and The Butterfly Assassin hasn’t. It may have changed beyond recognition since its first draft, but when I go back and reread that earliest version, there’s some intangible vibe that remains the same, even when every plot point has shifted and there probably isn’t a single line that survived intact in the entire book. It’s a Ship of Theseus situation: how much of the book can I rewrite before it stops being the same book? The answer with The Butterfly Assassin is: all of it. Because at its heart, on some indefinable level, it still feels like the same book. I’m still telling the same story, just very differently from how I first attempted it.

And, let’s be honest: much more effectively. I know, objectively, that the version of this book which will be hitting shelves in May is a fundamentally better book than the one I first wrote. It has been burned down and rebuilt more times than I can count. But the foundations are the foundations that eighteen-year-old me built, on the site that life had given me.

And so, when I find myself nervous about people’s reactions, I’ve realised it’s not simply because I’m defensive of myself as a creator now. No matter how challenging I find criticism and disagreement sometimes, I know it’s not inherently a bad thing, and I also hope that this will be the worst book I ever publish, because I would hate to peak with book one. No, it’s because I’m protective of me then. Of the younger Finn who is at the heart of the story.

But I don’t think they need me to protect them. Isabel was a kind of armour they built: a character who was all sharp edges, at a time when they felt ill-defined and vulnerable. And now Isabel’s her own person, and they’ve grown into me, and we’re not the same at all.

So the book is the book, and the bones it’s built on are its foundation, and nothing more. And whether people love it or hate it, I know that I used the rubble of a mediocre book I wrote as a teenager to build one that was far, far stronger than that, and I can be proud of it. I can be proud of the work I put in and I can be proud of the me I grew into it throughout the process and I can be proud of the words on the page, no matter what anyone else thinks of them.

My butterfly is going out into the world, and yes, I’m terrified. But I think it’s going to be okay.

Just as long as I stick to my promise to stay a long, long way away from Goodreads.


If you enjoyed this post, you can pre-order The Butterfly Assassin now, or buy me a coffee to help pay for the therapy I’m inevitably going to need once it’s out in the world ;)

2021 In Books

A few months ago, I wrote about my discomfort with the impulse to gamify everything in life, making hobbies like reading into a competitive sport that had to be done every day or risk losing a “reading streak”. This remains: I still mislike how much information my Kindle collects about my reading habits, and I’m trying to curb the impulse to make number-based goals and lists of what to read in 2022.

I did, however, take the time to transfer my typed list of what I’d read this year into Excel and fiddle around making graphs. Not to find out what the longest book I’d read was, or the most popular, nor to compete with anybody about the total number at the end, but to get a sense of the breakdown of age categories and genres, so that I’d have a better understanding of what I’ve been reading.

This proved to be a useful tool. Although I had some vague ideas about what the results would be, it wasn’t until I actually saw the percentages laid out in pie charts that I was able to judge whether or not I was right. Some of them, my impressions were accurate; others, not so much. Seeing what had changed over the past year compared to the years that went before it was particularly interesting: living abroad, the pandemic, the need for comfort in a stressful world, the general process of growing up, and spending a lot of time editing my debut novel were all factors in my reading choices.

So I figured I’d share a few of those trends and changes with you. I’m interested to know if others have seen similar shifts in their reading, or if your year was completely different. I’m not going to be sharing specific numbers, just percentages; this is partly because once you start making it about how many books you’ve read, competitiveness can easily seep in, but also because I think they’re more useful for identifying those broader patterns.

I’ll start with a guess that was completely wrong: I thought that I’d been rereading a lot this year — there were a couple of books I reread even within the year, and counted twice. But I’d failed to take into account that being separated from the majority of my physical book collection until late November seriously curtailed my rereading, and that for most of the year I’d instead been reading anything I could get cheaply as an ebook, so that the end result was that only 22% of my reads this year were rereads.

This is probably still more than most people, but I’ve always loved rereading, and my poor memory means I can get a lot out of it: having read a book doesn’t mean I’ll remember any of the plot, and even if I do, there are always details to notice. I’m very much a character-motivated reader (and writer), so coming back to a familiar book is like meeting up with old friends — the point is the people I’m with, not where we’re going. Sure, I’ll have more fun if we’re going somewhere I like, but it’s not the destination that makes the outing.

I’d suspected that I was reading more Adult than YA fiction, and that was true: my fiction reads were 56% Adult, 36% YA, 7% Children’s and 1% NA. That last 1% is another result of the dominance of ebooks, since NA is a rare category to find in trad publishing, and although I’m not sure, I’d suspect both of those books were self-published or by small presses. If NA were a properly established category, I think that YA percentage would be smaller: many of these were upper YA books, with 18-year-old protagonists, and there were a fair few that I felt belonged as much in Adult, their inclusion in YA solely a matter of marketing. It was also noticeable that a lot of my YA reads were rereads, though my Excel know-how is not sufficient to enable me to break down the charts by more than one category, so I can’t be exactly sure of how that compared.

There are a few reasons why my reading has skewed older this year. Partly, it’s that I’m fast approaching 26: I’m aware that YA is not written for me, and with every year that goes by, I find it harder to relate to. It’s a natural part of growing older, and while I can still enjoy great YA books and will continue to read them (I write them, after all), they’re not going to be as dominant anymore. It’s also a matter of practicalities — as I mentioned, I read a lot of ebooks, and many of my choices were the result of browsing sales and deals for discounts, because I wouldn’t be able to afford to keep up with my reading speed otherwise. I’ve noticed that YA books are often weirdly expensive on Kindle (the ebook market isn’t as strong for kidlit, so maybe that’s why?) and have fewer deals, which is partly why I’ve always been a library reader for YA. Pandemic restrictions have made that challenging, and that’s influenced my choices.

Finally, it’s a matter of genre. This is an area where the percentages really surprised me. Admittedly, these numbers are super approximate, because they’re based solely on what I inputted as the genre of a book when I put it into a spreadsheet, and for each book I only gave it one genre, and some of them were slightly nebulous. There were a fair few adult books that I would call “contemporary” if they were YA, but I’m not sure that’s a term that’s really used in Adult books; they’re not quite “literary”, but possibly they’re “uplit”, which is one of these terms I don’t really understand and am not convinced means anything concrete. Usually they get shelved simply in “Fiction”, which is fundamentally unhelpful.

Approximate or not, I was pretty sure I was reading less fantasy these days, but my pie charts inform me that 46% of this year’s fiction was fantasy, vastly outweighing any other genre. True, that includes everything from urban fantasy and paranormal to epic fantasy — and I read way more of the former than the latter — and true, a few years ago that percentage would have been way higher, but it still surprised me. I’ve been particularly struggling to vibe with YA fantasies recently, and I had begun to wonder if the category was no longer for me, but when I look at the stats, the proportion of YA fantasies is so skewed compared to other genres that I can’t help but feel I’ve probably just read more mediocre ones because I’ve read more overall.

The surprise runner-up is romance, at 25%. Okay, so this isn’t a surprise to me — I knew full well that I read or reread most of KJ Charles and Cat Sebastian’s entire backlist this year — but it’s a surprise to anyone who has seen my previous years’ reading habits. I’d dabbled in queer romance in the past, particularly when I used to review a lot of small press books, but it was during last year’s lockdowns that I really discovered the comforting nature of queer historical romance novels, and this year I reached for that comfort repeatedly. No wonder, then, that it makes up almost a quarter of my total reading. There were a few contemporary romances in there too, and even one or two books that weren’t queer (though I found that Relentlessly Heterosexual Romance Novels were not to my taste) but for the most part, queer historical romance stole the show.

(At one point, I even considered writing my own, but it quickly became apparent that the amount of research required to write any historical period other than “dubiously historical mythological Ireland” with any accuracy would be too much for me, since that is the only era I know anything much about. And while I think a tropey queer romance novel set in the Ireland of the Ulster Cycle would be a delight, I suspect the audience for that is about three people. Maybe one day…)

I won’t bore you with the full breakdown of genres — it’s the broader trends that I find interesting. I will note that I read very few thrillers (1%), which is possibly surprising considering I have one coming out in May. Partly, though, it’s because I have one coming out in May. I spent most of the year editing The Butterfly Assassin, and so I avoided anything too similar to it. I figured if a YA thriller was too good, it would put me off and make me paranoid about my own work; plus, after reading my own book at least once a month all year, the last thing I wanted was something that felt too similar. I gravitated instead towards books that were nothing like any of my current projects, as a way of giving my brain a break.

I’d like to change that in 2022: I have a few YA thrillers on my Kindle that I’ve been waiting for the right moment to read. But I still think I’ll be reading for comfort more than for excitement (the pandemic is not over, it’s my debut year, and I have a bunch of other life uncertainty and big decisions going on: I don’t need any more stress), so high-tension books probably aren’t going to be my first choice. There’s a reason I got so into romance novels, and it’s because there’s something immensely comforting about knowing that no matter what else happens, the characters will wind up together and safe and okay.

I’m imagining teen me reading that sentence. I think they’d be disgusted by how much I’ve mellowed. I’m not, though: I’m proud of it, because it means I’m actually trying to seek out things that make me happy instead of wallowing.

Probably, if I had more time and Excel skills, I could see how many different authors I’d read, and figure out how many of them were new to me. I suspect that’s an area where this year would be different, because of my ebook browsing and willingness to try new things so long as they don’t cost me more than 1.99. (My book budget was still my third-highest cost this year, after rent and food, which is exactly why those sales were so important, but hey, it’s not like I was going out or spending any money on anything else.)

But with the info I’ve got, I think I have a pretty good picture of my reading year, and as 2021 provided very few opportunities to enjoy my other hobbies, like dance (thanks, pandemic + injuries), that represents a fairly large chunk of how I spent my time this year when I wasn’t studying or editing. Granted, these stats don’t reflect how many times I read The Butterfly Assassin (probably at least 15, if I’m honest) or any of my other books. Nor do they say anything about my fanfic consumption, which still remains strongly skewed in favour of very long fics about Bucky Barnes slowly learning how to be a person again, sometimes with a detour to have feelings about Natasha Romanoff.

(My type is traumatised ex-assassins trying to learn how to be a normal person in a world that seems determined to make a monster of them, and I will not apologise for this. If this is also your type, may I humbly suggest adding The Butterfly Assassin to your TBR?)

I’ve enjoyed keeping the exact details of my reading to myself. I’ve enjoyed the freedom to read and reread whatever I like. I’ve enjoyed not needing to rate books on an arbitrary star scale that always had me overthinking the difference between “quality” and “enjoyment” (sometimes a book is good but I didn’t like it; how do I rate that?). No, I probably couldn’t tell you what my “favourite” book was, nor can I tell you what the “best” book was (not necessarily the same thing), but I’m okay with that. Life without Goodreads? Honestly, pretty chill. Yes, so I had to compile all my stats manually, but that meant I could focus it on information that was useful to me, not what Amazon decided I needed to know and compare with others.

2022 will be quite a different reading year in general. It’s my debut year, and I’ll be making an effort to read books by my fellow debuts. I can’t possibly read all of them, and some are in genres I don’t vibe with or about topics that stress me out: no matter how much I want to support somebody, it’s not worth making myself miserable. (I’ll focus on recommending them to others who might like them more, instead.) But that’ll mean buying more new books, rather than waiting for a convenient sale, and probably branching out in directions I might not have tried otherwise. Perhaps next year, my genre breakdown will be a lot more varied.

I also want to read more books by other marginalised authors, especially those whose experiences are similar to my own. Ocean @ Beyond The Binary compiled this great list of 2022 releases by trans and nonbinary authors: there are so many of us that it had to be split into two, one for each half of the year. Some of these are already on my radar, but I look forward to discovering more of them. It’s fantastic to see how many of us there are, especially in a very trans-hostile world… strength in numbers, right? And while not all of the books on the list have trans characters (The Butterfly Assassin is there, and doesn’t have canon trans rep in book 1), lots do.

Likewise, I want to read more books by disabled authors, though I haven’t yet identified a handy list (I’m sure there are many out there, I just haven’t gone looking). In both of these cases, there are probably any number of books that I won’t know about because those authors aren’t comfortable sharing these marginalised facets of their identities. And that’s fine, and I don’t think they should have to. By seeking out those experiences, I’m simply trying to find others who face some of the same systemic hurdles as me, to offer what little support I can as a reader. I can never find all of us, but I’m glad there are enough of us to make that true.

Another thing I’d like to do differently in 2022 is the fiction vs nonfiction balance. My reading this year was 91% fiction, despite the fact that I was doing an MA and a number of academic books made it onto the list. That’s partly because I was spending a lot of time reading academic articles, which don’t feature on my list, and I didn’t have the brainpower left for degree-irrelevant nonfiction. I don’t have that excuse anymore, and I want to read more “fun” nonfiction (I feel I’ve been saying this for years), and to learn things that aren’t only about medieval Irish literature.

Mostly, though, I want to read books that I enjoy and that make me happy. I want to read for fun. I want to share the books I love, and keep quiet about the ones I don’t, because the world has enough negative energy in it without adding more. I want to read the kind of books that inspire me to be a better writer, and reread the ones that set me on this path in the first place. And maybe when I come to compile some stats for myself at the end of next year, they’ll look completely different from this year’s, or maybe they’ll look almost the same, but that’s something that only time will tell.

My parents gave me a jumper for Christmas that says READ MORE BOOKS. I don’t think I need the instruction, but I’m sure I’ll be following it anyway.

So, now it’s your turn. Any surprises in your reading this year, any dramatic shifts in genre preference or age category, or have you found what you liked and stuck to it? Where do you hope 2022 will take you, in terms of books? Let me know in the comments — I’m always down to hear about other people’s reading.

(And if you’ve found you’ve read very little: that’s totally fine too. I read for comfort and distraction, but not everyone does, and the ongoing state of the world has made it very hard for some people to focus on that kind of thing. No judgment here! This is a judgment-free reading zone.)


If you don’t know what to read in 2022, please consider pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin. If you want to help fund my chronic book-buying problem, you can buy me a coffee instead :)

All Murder, No Sex: Why “Upper YA” ≠ “Sexy YA”

It’s still Ace Week, until Sunday, so following on from my last post about asexual representation in The Butterfly Assassin, I figured I would talk some more about sex and YA. More specifically, the clear and important difference between “upper YA” and “sexy YA”: terms with considerable overlap that are nevertheless not synonyms, and shouldn’t be considered as such.

There’s an uncomfortable habit that some people have of referring to books without sex as “clean”. This is particularly common in YA and romance — romance, because it’s a genre where distinguishing which books contain explicit sex is particularly relevant, and YA, because it’s a category where gatekeepers worry about what exactly they’re giving young people to read.

Of course, by categorising some books as “clean”, one automatically categorises others as “dirty”, whether or not that’s the intention, and implying that all explicit sex in books is somehow dangerous or inappropriate is a Whole Thing. It’s also something that’s disproportionately weaponised against marginalised creators. For decades, explicit queer content in books was considered illegally pornographic, and even now, LGBTQ+ books on Amazon get classified as “erotica” and hidden from lists and adverts when they don’t even vaguely fall into that category.

My experiences as a queer YA reader will be forever shaped by the fact that the first book with queer characters that I ever encountered — when I was twelve — had a label on the back saying “Advisory: Adult Content”. A label that wasn’t applied to the sequel, which contained substantial amounts of drug use. Only to the book with the gay characters. And I’ll always be shaped by the fact that when I was eighteen, I owned a grand total of three books containing queer characters. I can only recall two of the books, but in both of those they’re cis male secondary characters.

In other words, I never saw myself in books growing up. If I stumbled on queer characters in library books it felt like a strange kind of secret I was sharing with the author. Section 28 was repealed while I was still in primary school, but my county kept a version of it until I was halfway through secondary school, and in 2014, when I finished school, 29% of teachers still didn’t know whether or not they were allowed to teach about LGBT issues in schools.

This was a world of silence. Of not talking about it. Of “think of the children”. Of being treated like someone who was only allowed to exist after the watershed.

As an adult, it’s strange to think how recent this was, though sometimes, being trans, it can feel like little progress has been made. I remember when I first started getting queer books to review, I felt like I had to give all of them extra stars just because they bothered to include queer characters, which I’d seen so rarely. Now, there are enough of them that I don’t have to read any books featuring only straight people, if I choose not to. Now, there are enough that I’m allowed to dislike some of them.

I try not to take that for granted. I try to keep things in perspective. I remind myself that twenty years ago, most of the YA books I read now would have been illegal to display in school libraries.

It isn’t a world we should go back to.


There are constant conversations these days about sex in YA books, and the nature of upper YA, and where the line is between YA and Adult and whether it’s become too blurred, and whether YA is really written for teenagers anymore. Discourse is cyclical; the same discussions happen every few months, nothing changes, and everybody sinks into an ever-deepening pit of despair.

My take? The vast majority of YA books are written for teens. A few aren’t, but end up marketed that way because of the author’s prior readership or because publishers think they’ll do better there. Some of those that fall into this latter category happen to be really popular with older/adult YA readers, who have the purchasing power that makes publishers care about them, and therefore those books dominate the conversation because that’s what happens when money gets involved. Sometimes, I think both readers and authors would be happier if they made the jump to certain adult genres instead of squashing their books into the YA category by default. Other times, I think people are patronising teenagers and thinking them incapable of making up their own minds about anything. A lot of the time I’m feeling both of these things simultaneously.

One thing I find reductive about the conversation is how it always comes down to sex.

I think I have strong feelings about this for two reasons. One, I’m somebody who writes upper YA and adult fiction and often struggles to determine on which side of the line a book should fall. Two, I was a kid who read ‘above’ my age category from a fairly young age but who hated romance in books.

I was a teenager during the paranormal romance boom. Shaped by the Twilight era so much that I wrote one of my GCSE coursework essays about the impact Twilight had had on teen fiction as a whole. You know what I complained about in that essay? That it flooded the market with copycats and love triangles so that those of who didn’t like them had to go hang out in the adult section to find literally anything else.

I was probably being hyperbolic. I’m sure there were plenty of other YA books in the late 00s and early 10s that weren’t fixated on heterosexual white girls and their awkward supernatural love triangles. I probably read a lot of them, and loved a lot of them. But it felt, at times, like every book I read was trying to give me the same story, and it was a story that had romance at the centre, where kissing was a huge, life-changing big deal that everybody was desperate to experience.

And I… wasn’t interested.

Not only was I not interested, but throughout most of my teens I found sex not only uninteresting but actively horrifying and repellent to think about. I looked away during sex scenes in films. I skimmed them in books. I’d retreated to the adult SFF section to get away from ubiquitous YA love triangles, but I’d found the sexual violence of A Song of Ice and Fire (also gaining popularity at the time) to be a pretty poor alternative.

I wanted difficult books. Angsty books. Books with tough choices and sad endings where not everything turned out all right. I didn’t want the kind of kidlit where everybody’s safely home for tea at the end; I wanted books that would make me cry. But the older I got and the further along the YA category I got, the more the world only seemed to want to give me books about sex.


My debut, The Butterfly Assassin, is an upper YA book. It’s a book where I find myself mentally justifying its classification as YA because I don’t feel secure in it. It’s a book where my editor has periodically said, “I’m not sure if we should put that in a YA book,” or, “Should we maybe avoid this detail?” (And most of the time I’ve justified keeping whatever the detail was on the basis that I have 100% seen worse in popular MG and YA books.) It is a book I will not be letting my mum read.

It is also a sexless book. A book with no romance. A book where romance doesn’t even enter into the protagonist’s mind, and she shows absolutely no interest in sex.

It is not a ‘clean’ book.

It’s not a clean book because the protagonist kills somebody in the first chapter. (This isn’t a spoiler. It’s in the blurb.) It’s not a clean book because there’s more than enough swearing to ensure my parents will be vaguely disappointed in me no matter how well it sells. (Sorry.) It’s not a clean book because there’s violence and trauma and the messiness of trying to take control of your life when literally everybody around you thinks they know better than you how you should be living it.

But hey, there’s no sex.

That was a conscious choice, for the record. When I planned this book, way back in 2014, that was one of the first things I knew about it: that it was going to be all murder, no sex. I was eighteen and sick of sexy assassins, sick of ’emotionless’ characters being humanised by their libido, sick of romantic or sexual attraction being positioned as a redeeming feature.

I was sick of being told, implicitly, with every book that I read, that my lack of interest either made me a sociopath or a child.

It was a pattern I saw again and again. A remorseless, dark character is portrayed as emotionless and their capacity for redemption is in doubt, right up until the moment they fall in love and suddenly reveal themselves to have a heart. It didn’t seem like these protagonists were allowed to be softened by friendship. Nor did it seem that dystopian protagonists were ever allowed to motivated to save the world by platonic bonds of affection.

Because if they were, that wouldn’t be YA. That would be MG.

I wanted upper YA. I wanted books that were dark and morally complicated and that asked hard questions and that my parents would probably disapprove of. I wanted books that didn’t pull their punches (but authors seemed intent on not letting their characters actually die, which infuriated me). But it felt like I was only allowed those books with a solid helping of romance. And the ‘older’ the books got, the sexier they got.


It’s not that sex doesn’t belong in books. During the course of the pandemic, I’ve developed a taste for queer historical romance novels and I’ve read some of them three times or more. Some of them have explicit sex, and if it’s well-written, that can be a plus. Have I read a few that squicked me out? Yeah, because bad sex scenes are The Worst. But it’s not the sex that’s the problem. It’s an important reminder that I want from books as a 25-year-old is very different from what I wanted from books as a 16-year-old — something I try to bear in mind when I write YA. Some people’s tastes don’t change so dramatically, going from being utterly repulsed by sex to having a collection of favourite romance novels, but it’s still important to remember that teens and adults often want pretty different things from books.

But that doesn’t mean that sex doesn’t belong in YA, either. Even if it wasn’t to my taste, a lot of teenagers are interested in sex. A lot of teenagers are having it, too, though possibly not as many as the media would have you believe. (Most of my friendship group wasn’t. Side effect of being late-blooming queers: nobody was getting laid.) If they don’t find it in the books aimed at their age group, they’ll look for it elsewhere. In fanfic. In romance novels. In whatever they take off their parents’ shelves.

(I have friends who read wildly inappropriate books from a very young age by virtue of raiding their parents’ bookshelves. The fact that I wasn’t one of them was probably less to do with my lack of interest and more to do with the fact that my parents’ shelves contained things like Kafka in the original German, and three copies of CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity. The “Advisory: Adult Content” YA novel I read at twelve was sneaked from my sister’s shelf instead.)

Sex has been in YA books for as long as YA has existed as a category. It’s not a new trend, nor is it at odds with themes and ideas that many teenagers are looking for. And it’s not responsible for the ways that the category is pushing older and older and marketing more to adults than to teenagers. That, as far as I can tell, is about money. It’s about who buys hardbacks and subscription boxes and collects special editions versus who is waiting six months for the library to get a copy of the book. Which one do the publishers care more about? And which one of those is the teen?

But listening to the conversations about upper YA, you’d think that sex was the only thing that defined that category, just like manufactured love triangles and creepy, controlling love interests seemed to define the bestsellers in the genre when I was a teenager. And it’s not. There are — and should be — other factors at work. There are ‘sexless’ books that skew older than any of the contemporaries exploring a character’s first time; books that centre friendship aren’t automatically closer to MG than to adult.

I realise that for a lot of people, romantic and sexual firsts are a major part of the process of growing up. But often — and maybe I’d even say increasingly — that doesn’t necessarily happen in one’s teens. A lot of my friends didn’t have their first kiss until their 20s. The YA books we grew up with taught us that that was weird and unusual. It’s not. Especially not for queer people of our generation, who didn’t necessarily have the freedom to explore our sexualities as teenagers.

By reducing the YA category to the types of relationships depicted, we do it a disservice, and we do teenagers a disservice. By making conversations about appropriate age ranges focus on how much sex there is or isn’t in a book, we exclude people from the discussion. There are teens who are interested in sex, yes. And I recognise that “teens want this” is an important weapon against gatekeepers who would treat seventeen-year-olds like seven-year-olds if not for the constant pushback of authors and creators.

But. But. Conversations about sex in YA and conversations about there not being enough books for fourteen-year-olds are not the same conversation. There are fourteen-year-olds who want romance-focused books with a certain amount of steaminess. And there are eighteen-year-olds who want dark, messed-up books with no sex whatsoever.

And these books exist. There’s upper YA that pushes the boundaries of what it means for a book to be YA and they don’t do it by including graphic sex scenes. But when we make the conversation “who is YA really for” to be about how much sex is in a book, we miss the point, because those are two separate things.


I know that people say that authors need to be writing for real teens, who are reading now. Not for their own past self, who lived in a different world.

But they also say you should write the books you want to read, if you can’t find them on the shelf.

When I was seventeen, I wanted a book that was all murder, no sex. I wanted a book that was aimed at my age group, that didn’t pull punches or patronise me, and I didn’t want the cost of maturity to be romance. Because even then I was sick of an amatonormative world that treated friendship as something childish and romance as the gateway to adulthood.

And I’m willing to bet there are still some teens out there who want that too.

The Butterfly Assassin is upper YA. It contains no sex. That doesn’t make it any less upper YA and it certainly doesn’t make it any less likely to get complaints from parents and school librarians — though I’m convinced it’ll be the swearing that bothers them more than the corpses.

I started out by talking about the silence of the world I grew up in, one that only gave me heterosexual options and where anything else was shocking and rare and transgressive, because it’s been 13 years and I’m still angry that a book with a gay character got stamped with ADVISORY: ADULT CONTENT but a book with repeated drug use didn’t. Because being queer was considered more mature, more ‘inappropriate’. Because simply by virtue of containing a character who was explicitly gay, the book’s target audience was considered older.

This is why I’m wary of conversations that position sex as the defining feature of upper YA. This is why I’m wary when conversations about YA not being written for teens start and end with the amount of sex that’s in a book. It is always weaponised against marginalised groups first.

But it’s also why it bothers me that books without sex are automatically considered suitable for younger readers than those that contain it. For years, graphic violence was considered more suitable for kids that consensual queerness. Why are we more okay with letting a thirteen-year-old read about murder than letting them read about sex?

There are so many levels to this problem, and it helps nobody if we treat sex as the definitive factor in a book’s target audience. It is only one factor, one that’s tied up in cultural ideas about maturity and what it means to grow up, and one that’s dominated the conversation for way too long.

YA is about so much more than romantic and sexual relationships. But it’s easy to forget that, when that seems to be all anyone ever talks about. Maybe it’s time we moved on.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee or pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin.

Schrodinger’s Asexual Representation

Today is the first day of Ace Week — formerly known as Asexual Awareness Week — and this year’s theme is “Beyond Awareness”. What exactly this means, I’m not entirely sure, but I would imagine it’s about going beyond “asexual people exist” and into having more interesting conversations about it. I thought, then, that I would talk a little about stories, representation, and ace characters, through the specific lens of The Butterfly Assassin and its protagonist, Isabel Ryans.

It may seem strange to talk at length about a book that doesn’t release for another seven months, but now seemed like a good time: because it’s Ace Week, because I’m about to start working on the sequel again, and because I wanted to respond to some of the reactions to book’s announcement.

When I announced The Butterfly Assassin, I mentioned that Isabel is asexual, and emphasised that the book had no romance: the most important relationship is an intense, ride-or-die friendship. All of this is true, but when I saw how people responded to the news that the protagonist was asexual, I began to wish I hadn’t mentioned it. Not because they were hostile: on the contrary, people were excited by this news, and several people told me they couldn’t wait for more ace rep. Somebody else, knowing the kind of thing I generally write, responded to my Instagram Story with, “So there’s all the queer rep, yes?!”

And that struck me with terror.

Why? Because Isabel’s asexuality is never explicitly labelled on the page. I felt immediately certain that those same people would read the book and then take to social media to call me out for claiming representation that isn’t there, or say it’s a cop-out, or subtweet about how it’s Problematic to say a book has ace rep if the only representation it has is the absence of romantic/sexual relationships, or, or, or…

I know that the Internet is impossible to please, and that even the most careful, thoughtful representation will always make somebody on Twitter angry. Writing as though social media is looking over your shoulder is an absolute mind-killer, because you will never be unproblematic enough to be “safe”. So I know that I shouldn’t worry too much about what hypothetical future readers will say if they decide they don’t like me. But I do worry, because I think there are a lot of valid concerns in criticisms like this — some of which I wanted to assuage today.

An open notebook reading "it feels a little like power, but it's not a game Isabel's ever been interested in playing" lies on top of a large, creased asexual pride flag. Beside it are two brown notebooks, on which the words "The Moth Trilogy" can just about be made out. One has a rainbow-coloured butterfly sticker on it. Above those are two kitchen knives.
This quote is possibly the closest Isabel comes to labelling her sexuality in this book.

In fairness to myself, what I actually said on Twitter was that the book had an “asexual protagonist (admittedly, she hasn’t figured that out yet)”, and in my blog post about the announcement, I mentioned that Isabel lacks the vocabulary to describe herself in those terms. But I suspect that by publicly labelling my protagonist in this way, I created an expectation that the word would be used, and therefore, inevitably, I’m going to disappoint some people.

Here’s the thing. Isabel is asexual. The question of whether she’s aromantic is a little more complicated; I see her as being somewhat like myself, in terms of very occasionally experiencing romantic attraction under particular circumstances. Some people might call this grey-aro, or demiromantic; I don’t use these terms for myself, preferring to yeet my sexuality under the far less complicated and gender-expansive term “queer”, so that’s partly why I’d hesitate to put any specific label on my character. Suffice to say that Isabel’s somewhere in the approximate vicinity of “ace/aro”.

(As this discussion makes clear, asexuality and aromanticism aren’t synonymous. For me, though, they’ve always blurred into each other, and I see Isabel’s experience as similar, so throughout this post, I’m using “asexual” as a loose catch-all term to encompass her general lack of interest in romantic and/or sexual relationships.)

In The Butterfly Assassin, there are a number of reasons why she doesn’t label herself in this way, and it has nothing to do with me trying to hedge my bets or because I don’t understand the value of seeing a term like that on the page. Believe me, I do. The first time I saw an asexual character in a book — Quicksilver, by RJ Anderson — I cried, because it was the first time I’d seen the word used anywhere other than Tumblr, and it made me feel seen.

So I understand the value of words and labels, even though on a personal level, I’ve moved away from trying to pin myself down with a specific term. I understand that people can be disappointed when a book doesn’t have the obvious, explicitly labelled representation that they were hoping for. I thought very hard about this, and the absence of the term in this book wasn’t a choice I made lightly.

One factor is that the book is set in a fictional closed city, which has been largely cut off from the outside world for the past century. While they have access to a small amount of external media, and smugglers bring in more, they aren’t engaging with the exact same cultural understandings or material that we, in our world, engage with. Queer communities within the city have developed their own terminology and ways of labelling themselves, which aren’t necessarily the same as our own — particularly with regard to identities that have only begun to be labelled more recently.

A challenge of the worldbuilding in this book, however, is that we only see what Isabel sees — and Isabel isn’t in those communities, nor is she one of the technologically-minded types breaking through the city firewalls to access the unfiltered internet. She’s a teenager with no friends, and absolutely no support network; she’s been deliberately prevented from forming those kinds of connections by the people who raised her. This means she largely isn’t aware that those communities even exist, let alone how they’re describing themselves.

The city itself isn’t as heteronormative or homophobic as many parts of our own world, so queer relationships often pass unremarked. In fiction, this is often called a “queernorm” world — a world where queerness doesn’t have to be explained or necessarily labelled, because there’s no assumption of straightness. It’s another reason why the city’s inhabitants don’t always use the same labels and terminology that those in the outside world do; they have different priorities, and different aspects of their identity which seem important on an everyday basis.

Priorities are big part of why this book doesn’t explore Isabel’s sexuality at any length: to put it quite simply, she has bigger problems. She’s in hiding, using a fake name, making poor life decisions, and — for a solid chunk of the book — facing what seems like certain imminent death. All her energy is going on staying alive, rather than worrying about romance and whether or not she’s interested in it. (Although the fact that it’s such a low priority for her at seventeen may be another clue that she’s ace… as a teen, I never could understand why people in movies would start making out during life-or-death situations.)

Finally, there’s the fact that Isabel just… hasn’t figured that stuff out yet. It’s the first time in her life she’s even had a friend her own age; opportunities for figuring out where her romantic/sexual interests lie have been few and far between. I mean, I had a normal upbringing, went to school, and had access to all the usual pop culture, and I still didn’t figure out I wasn’t straight until a similar age; it took even longer before I started finding specific words that fitted. I’ve never related to the “born this way” or “always knew” narratives that are so dominant, and Isabel, who’s been through a lot of trauma and hasn’t had the opportunity to explore her feelings, has even more reason to be a late bloomer in terms of figuring things out.

And I think that’s okay. More than okay, I think that’s important. For every person who “always knew” they were gay or bi or trans, there’s someone who hit their early 20s and went, “Wait, this isn’t right,” or started transitioning at 40 or got all the way into retirement before they found a word that made them feel understood. We need stories about the late bloomers, the people who had to untangle their sexuality from trauma, the people who repressed their feelings and the people who just never had them, the people who didn’t think it mattered until they met a particular person, and everyone else who didn’t understand themselves until much later in life.

Isabel doesn’t understand herself. I know her better than she does. I know her better because The Butterfly Assassin isn’t a standalone, so I’ve seen the progress she’ll make as she begins to process what she’s been through and figure out where she stands in the world. I know that she’ll eventually feel safe enough to start figuring that stuff out, and talking about it to people she trusts. (I know that eventually there will be people she trusts.)

But right now, in book one? There are passing references to her lack of interest, but they’re just that: passing references. Not in-depth conversations or explicit labels. The primary way her asexuality manifests in this book is that there are two relationships which could have been romantic/sexual, and aren’t. One is the “shared trauma” type of relationship — two survivors of the same crappy situation — and the other is the “first kindness type” — i.e. the same person who has ever been nice to Isabel. I’ve seen novels develop both of those types of pairings into romantic ones, and I decided I had no interest in doing so.

So I didn’t.

And that’s it: that’s the asexual murder book. It’s the fact that it never even occurs to Isabel to think about people in those terms. She thinks she’s too focused on survival, the same way I thought I was just really great at the whole “no sex before marriage” thing my evangelical upbringing encouraged. Eventually she, like me, will figure out that there’s more to it than that — but right now, it’s the absence of those thoughts that provides the key to understanding her sexuality.

But that absence means something. That absence is what I was looking for as a teenager. More than a label, more than a word, what I needed was to see a life, a path, a way through adulthood that didn’t assume I would eventually settle down into a relationship. I wanted to know that that was allowed. I wanted reassurance that friendship wasn’t something we grow out of. I wanted stories that didn’t revolve around a type of relationship I wasn’t interested in.

Beyond awareness, to me, means going past “asexual people exist”, going past coming out stories (though there is always space for these, and we always need them), and into the realm of possibilities for the future. It means telling stories that give us space to exist, without pressure to explain our lack of interest. It’s amatonormativity — the positioning of normative romantic/sexual relationships as central and essential to people’s lives, without which we’re incomplete or broken or failures — that puts pressure on us to label ourselves in the first place; I want stories without that.

I wanted to write a book that says: friendship can be every bit as intense and devastating as romance. I wanted to write a book where romance never crosses the protagonist’s mind. And I wanted to write a book where I didn’t necessarily have to explain that with concrete terminology. After all, friendship can be important to everyone, regardless of their sexuality, and even if people want a romantic relationship at some point, that doesn’t mean they’re looking for one at all times. There’s space in everyone’s lives for a narrative outside of romance, one that focuses on all the other types of interpersonal relationships we navigate daily.

(I recently realised that, quite unintentionally, I’d created a story where Isabel’s singleness is entirely unremarkable. Almost all of the secondary characters in this book are single, barring Isabel’s parents; one character references a past relationship, but otherwise, there are basically no couples. Not because they’re all ace — far from it! But because it was so irrelevant to the story I was telling, it simply never came up. More than a queernorm world, perhaps what The Butterfly Assassin offers is a single-norm world…)

That doesn’t mean that Isabel’s asexuality isn’t canon, or that it’s a “word of God” situation, only confirmed outside the book itself. As I said above, The Butterfly Assassin isn’t a standalone, and Isabel won’t always be a terrified, traumatised teenager with a very limited sense of self. In the sequel, we’ll get the chance to explore these aspects of her character more, partly through conversation with another character, who is also ace. (And no, the term still isn’t used, for the worldbuilding reasons outlined above, but their orientations are unambiguously discussed.)

This second ace character is very important to me, because Isabel arguably falls into the “emotionless asexual” (or at least, “emotionally repressed to the point of not actually realising she has feelings”) trope. I didn’t want to imply that her asexuality was related to that aspect of her personality, or that it’s solely a result of what she’s been through. It’s not. The other ace character is a much more functional person in general, and one of the most loving and emotionally open characters in the whole thing; he just happens to also be ace/aro. It was important to me that this was the case. There’s also an aro character who isn’t asexual, and more queer rep in general.

And in book three, if we get book three (the deal so far was for two books), Isabel has the opportunity to encounter more queer people who actually do use labels, and to start figuring out how her identity fits into that web. That book’s at a very early stage right now, so I can’t tell you whether she settles on a specific term. But I promise you it’s something I’ve thought about, and I can see her having a far more concrete understanding of her own identity by the time her story eventually comes to a close.

So no, my asexual murder book doesn’t use the word “asexual”. But it’s still the book that I wanted as an asexual teenager: a book that centred friendship, that didn’t shove two characters into a relationship just because they interacted a few times, and finally, a book that didn’t interrupt life-or-death moments with kissing.

And while Isabel’s sexuality may be ambiguous in book one, I hope that as the trilogy progress, it becomes more and more apparent that she’s ace, even if she never reaches the point of using that specific word. Not because the words aren’t important. But because sometimes people haven’t found their label yet, and that doesn’t mean they’re any less asexual.

If that’s not the ace rep you were hoping for, then I’m sorry. And I hope that one day I’ll write a book with the kind of setting where the characters can use these labels unambiguously, because like I said, I know how important it is to see yourself in a book, when it feels like most of the world doesn’t think you exist. But I still wrote this story for people like us, and I hope you’ll give it a chance anyway.

🖤🤍💜

The Butterfly Assassin will be published on 26th May 2022. You can add it on Goodreads or pre-order it now.

The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think (Book Review)

When I first saw the title of Mark Williams’ new book, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, I have to admit, I was… concerned. If it weren’t for the fact that I know and trust Mark when it comes to medieval literature (he was my second year Old Irish teacher and dissertation supervisor), I might have thought it was a pop psychology book about the inherent mythic structures in our brains, or something similar.

However, I do trust Mark, and I also know first hand that authors don’t always choose their titles, so I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. And the blurb makes it pretty clear that we’re not talking about any mythic brainwaves: if these stories have shaped the way we think, it’s in the sense of shaping how we think about Irish and Welsh myth/culture, not in the sense of defining our daily approach to interpersonal relationships.

(Which is… good. Because I seriously worry about anyone who bases their approach to interpersonal relationships on the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, since, uh, yikes.)

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Ireland’s Immortals and still find it a super useful reference book, so I figured I would get my hands on Celtic Myths and see what Mark had to offer on this occasion, hoping for a new go-to recommendation for people who come to me looking for guidance on what to read to learn more about medieval lit. I finished the book this afternoon, sitting on my landlords’ roof (… don’t tell them), and I thought I’d give you my thoughts.

The tl;dr is that this is a great introductory read, but if you’re expecting short blog posts, you’re definitely in the wrong place, so you’re getting way more detail than that. No, I was not paid to write this review; yes, I bought this book with my own money, etc. Though if anyone wants to give me a sponsorship deal for yelling about medieval literature on the internet, my DMs are open…

A photograph of "The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think" by Mark Williams. It's a bright sunny day, and there's a tree turning autumnal red in the background.
Rooftop reads: climbing out of the window with a book is my new favourite hobby on sunny days.

First of all, Mark makes it very clear from the beginning that this is a book aimed at the general reader. Unlike Ireland’s Immortals, which sought to hit that sweet spot between being an academic/scholarly book and also an accessible work that the general public might enjoy, that means Celtic Myths doesn’t contain footnotes (though there is some ‘further reading’ listed at the back). Quotes are given only in English translation, and technical terms are kept to a minimum; generic “Celtic scholars” are referenced rather than bogging the text down with names. This may be frustrating to those who want to follow up on specific points, but probably makes for a much easier and less daunting read for the newcomer.

Each chapter explores a different story, giving a rundown of the original material and then discussing its afterlife over time, and some of the ways the story has been reworked and developed. Throughout the book, there are pictures (including a number of full-colour plates), showing how characters and stories have been conceptualised over time, from fourteenth-century manuscript illustrations to Hellboy II.

Since I’m not a ‘general’ reader, I found that I was already familiar with almost all of the book’s content; though I’m not an expert on the Welsh side of things, I’ve done enough Welsh lit to be passingly familiar with the stories and poems in question, and there was nothing in the book that I’d say was brand new information. Of course, some of that is because Mark himself was my lecturer for a while: in chapter 3 (“Merlin: From Wildman to Wizard”) there were a number of details I was pleased to find I already knew, only to realise a few minutes later that that was because I got them from Mark, in a lecture he gave about medieval ‘wildman’ stories, Merlin, and Suibhne.

This is great, though, because now it means I finally have an alternative to trying to cobble together explanations for people based on my own undergraduate lecture notes, which are frequently chaotic if they exist at all — I can instead pass them this book, knowing that it covers the same material in a far more coherent way. I get a lot of people asking me questions about medieval literature (mainly Irish, but occasionally Welsh) or looking for reading recommendations, and I’m always looking for books that I trust to be both accurate and accessible.

(Obviously, having been taught by Mark means I’m also inclined to agree with a lot of his interpretations, since he played a significant part in shaping my own approach to Celtic literature. I wouldn’t say we agree 100% of the time, and there are a couple of details in the Cú Chulainn chapter where I’m inclined to quibble with the simplified explanations given, even though I know you can’t go into all the complexities in a general-purpose book like this. But it does mean I’m predisposed to find his conclusions believable: we belong to similar schools of thought.)

I had hoped that I’d be able to make use of the book myself as a sort of general-purpose reference book — sometimes I find it useful to have more ‘introductory’ material around when I can’t remember where I found something, because it can save me time hunting. Unfortunately, since this book has no footnotes and few direct quotes or citations, I don’t think I’ll be adding it to that particular shelf in my library, because unless it’s something where I can cite this book directly, I’d have to go off and do my own detective work to get a more detailed reference. However, as a scholarly reader, I am well aware that I am not the target audience, and this isn’t meant as a criticism — just a note for anyone thinking of picking it up who is wondering whether it’ll suit their purposes.

So who is the target audience? Well, I admit I have no sense of how easy it would be to follow if you came to the book with absolutely zero familiarity with any of the content, because it’s now too many years since I can remember what it was like not to know who Cú Chulainn is. But I’d say this is a really great book if your primary exposure to this material is via T.W. Rolleston or Peter Berresford Ellis or anyone else who offers “Celtic Myths & Legends” in one convenient volume, and you’re looking to understand why actually, it’s all a little more complicated than that. It’ll probably also suit people whose exposure to Celtic myth has been through retellings or reworkings in popular culture, and who want to know whether Neil Gaiman’s Mad Sweeney or Guillermo del Toro’s Nuada really bear any resemblance to their medieval namesakes — people who are trying to figure out what the “real myth” is behind the retellings.

Spoiler alert: “real myth” is both an oxymoron and a complicated metric to apply to anything Celtic, as Mark demonstrates. He uses the word “myth” critically throughout the book, explaining some of the difficulties with using this term for Celtic material. Some scholars use it pretty freely, even for late material, while others try not to use it at all, and still more are somewhere in the middle — Mark generally falls into the third category, acknowledging the mythic content in texts while also foregrounding their medieval or early modern literary context and origin. He discusses the dates and contexts of different texts, looking at how some of the most famous “mythological” material is actually the product of named authors centuries after when most people would have imagined it to be composed, and examines the tension between “pagan” ideas and the Christian context in which our medieval literature was produced, and how contemporary events shaped the literature as we have it.

He does this in a non-judgmental way, acknowledging that many people feel a personal and/or spiritual connection to material, even if it isn’t ancient, and exploring the ways that “late” material may still be an authentic part of a country’s literary and cultural heritage. But he’s also frank about aspects of popular “Celtic” culture that are modern inventions, and how they came to be, looking at the lasting impact of Iolo Morgannwg (Edward Williams), James Macpherson (inventor of the poems of Ossian), and others who shaped our modern conception of Celtic literatures.

I think the Introduction of the book in particular is vital reading for those new to dealing with Celtic material on anything other than a surface level. Mark points out how many popular treatments are second- or third-hand information, often a long way distanced from their source material, regurgitated uncritically (particularly online). I see a lot of misinformation online, where people misinterpret what the Irish texts say or even just make stuff up from nowhere, and it spreads powerfully quickly, including ending up in published books and guides. Mark doesn’t dismiss the value of these stories as creative works and folk traditions, but warns readers to be aware of what is and is not a genuine part of the historical tradition.

“The upshot is that the afterlife of a given story tends to dominate, to the extent that it completely obscures the medieval original behind a heavy veil of romantic nationalism and, in a few cases, outright fraud. As a result, popular handbooks often depend on retellings of retellings, in which dubious ‘truths’ about Celtic myth are endlessly recycled: these retellings can lie a long way from the primary sources and take on a facticity of their own. People may want to include elements of such retellings in their own creative endeavours or spiritual life — which is of course absolutely legitimate — but some of these ‘well-known facts’ rest on fragile evidence.”

Mark Williams, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, p. 12.

In each chapter, Mark considers some of the uses to which the medieval stories have been put. If I’m honest, I would have liked more detailed analysis of some of these — particularly in the Cú Chulainn chapter (how predictable of me), where he touches on the use of images of Cú Chulainn for political purposes. The image of the dying Cú Chulainn has been utilised for both republican and unionist causes, with the same image being used for the statue in the GPO as in loyalist murals in Belfast. I’ve read a couple of really interesting articles on the topic, but it’s something I’d love to know more about, and Mark only gives it a glancing treatment. But, that’s my background speaking — the very fact that I’ve read some academic articles on the subject is a sign that I’m not the “general reader” here.

Still, I’d have liked to hear more of Mark’s thoughts on some of the pop culture he discusses (The Owl Service as a reworking of the Fourth Branch, The Call as an interpretation of the Túatha Dé, etc). I suppose that would be a different book, one focused on textual reception for those already familiar with the stories, rather than one aimed at introducing newcomers to the tales behind the pop culture they’re familiar with. I do think that’s a book the field needs (though I know there has been some work on this already) and when I initially read the blurb of this one, I hoped maybe this might be it, but on most levels, it’s not.

There is slightly more Welsh material than Irish material in the book: five chapters about specifically Welsh material, four about specifically Irish material, and one about Brutus and origin legends which explores both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Lebor Gabala. Where there are parallels or relevant examples from the literature of the “other” country, Mark draws them in, but he’s keen to stress that Irish and Welsh material are not interchangeable, nor as similar as they’re often painted to be in popular thinking. And for those wondering why a book about “Celtic” myth seems to make little mention of Scottish, Cornish, Manx or Breton material, Mark addresses this in the introduction: the bulk of the early literature that we have is from Wales and Ireland, making them his primary focus, though other Celtic-speaking areas are referenced where relevant.

So that’s the content, but what about the style? Well, while this one doesn’t include either the word “sexcapades” or the word “glitterati”, both of which showed up in Ireland’s Immortals and helped secure it a place on my “favourite academic books list”, it’s still plenty entertaining. The humour is often understated, but undeniable, and it definitely doesn’t feel like slogging through dense academic prose. The pictures also help, as does the fairly large print…

(Listen. I’m in the middle of Thesis Hell. I need all the help I can get when it comes to actually absorbing any information.)

So while as a scholarly reader I found myself wanting more — more detail, more discussion of textual reception, more direct quotes — I would have no reservations about recommending this to any general reader looking for a solid introduction to some of the most famous figures in Irish and Welsh literature: Taliesin, Merlin, Finn, Deirdre, and so on. If you want a way in to Celtic mythology that’s grounded in actual sources and up-to-date on recent scholarship and academic interpretations, this is it, and a much better starting place than most of the “Celtic Myths” books on the market.

If, however, you’re looking for a more detailed scholarly investigation into the mythological side of the Irish tradition, go for Ireland’s Immortals. Almost five years after its publication, it’s still one of my go-to recs — but this one is a great addition to the list, particularly for those who are brand new to the material.


You can buy The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think on Amazon UK (affiliate link; if you buy via this link I earn a small commission) or at your local bookshop or wherever you normally buy books, and likewise with Ireland’s Immortals.

If you enjoyed this post and want to enable me to continue buying books like this so I can tell you about them, please consider dropping a couple of quid in my tip jar!

Streaks and Statistics

These days, I primarily read on my Kindle, a trusty Paperwhite that I bought in 2015 when my old Kindle Keyboard shuffled off this mortal coil. The case is cracked and falling apart, but I’m wary of replacing it, in case the Kindle itself follows suit shortly afterwards; the device itself is hanging in there at the moment, but occasionally has its glitches.

Since I first got a Kindle in 2011, I’ve continued to read a mixture of paper books and ebooks. In recent years, I’ve shifted towards the ebooks for fiction. When I was struggling with my visual stress, before I got my tinted glasses, it was easier to tape an orange plastic overlay to my Kindle screen than continually move one from page to page of a paper book. Now, although I can read paper books more easily again, I’m separated by a few hundred miles from the majority of my collection, with only ten fiction books here with me in my flat.

So it’s practical, it’s convenient, and the number of books I’m able to pick up at discounted prices mean that I can feed my reading habit without having to sacrifice the ability to feed myself — all good reasons to rely on ebooks.

Part of me, however, resents that my naive 2011 self locked myself into an Amazon-dependent Kindle, my extensive library of ebooks difficult to transfer to another system if I decided to steer away from Amazon when this device eventually breaks. I don’t like giving money to Amazon, if I can help it: I disapprove of their treatment of workers, their failure to pay taxes, and the impact they’ve had on independent bookshops. But when it comes to ebooks, it feels like a necessary evil, and if that’s a rather more significant portion of my monthly budget than it should be, at least I try not to buy from Amazon in other areas of my life.

(I recognise that obviously, buying from Amazon is crucial for some people in terms of accessibility. This isn’t intended to pass judgement on those people, just to remark on my own choices as a consumer.)

Because I have an actual Kindle, and I prefer reading on the “e-ink” screen rather than on my phone or another backlit device, I rarely use the Kindle app, but I have it on my phone in case I need to quickly reference a book while I’m out and about. The other day, however, I went into the app to check something for a friend, and discovered a whole new function I’d never seen before: “Reading Insights”.

In these Reading Insights, my Kindle told me how many books I’d read this year, my “reading streak” (22 weeks, but only 6 days in a row at present), how many days per month I was reading (23 in September, down from 26 in August but significantly up from 14 in May) and my “records” — “wins and bests from your reading activity”. Reading, like Duolingo, was something to be done and recorded every day, to maintain a “streak”.

Obviously, my Kindle only knows about the books I’ve read as purchased ebooks — not paper books, library ebooks, fanfic, or anything else that I don’t read through its app or devices. However, since this year, 128 of my ~170 reads so far have been Kindle books, this still represents a pretty large proportion of my reading.

I knew, of course, that it tracked me. That’s how it’s able to recommend me books similar to my recent reads; that’s why I occasionally get Amazon recommendations that are made entirely of KJ Charles novels; that’s inevitable when the purchase and the mechanism for interacting with that purchase are so closely integrated. But I still found it somewhat unsettling to see a calendar of my reading activity, to see days marked in blue where I read something. For a moment, I imagined someone looking at that data and thinking, “Wow, this person has seriously messed up sleep patterns. Look how often they stayed up until 2am.” For a moment, I wondered what other uses it could be put to.

It used to be that I’d track this stuff myself, on Goodreads (also owned by Amazon, whose fingers are in nearly every bookish pie these days). My reasons for quitting Goodreads were many, and few of them were to do with data privacy, although there’s been a level of relief about not having to share my opinions all the time. I track my reading in a text file and leave myself a short note about my feelings on a book, to let me know whether it’s worth rereading in future; I can be as caustic or bubbly as I like, and nobody can judge me on it. But I had thought that a pleasant side-effect of leaving was that the internet wouldn’t be quite so aware of everything I’d read, in order to use it to advertise at me.

Except that Amazon knows. And Amazon is in the internet. And Amazon not only knows what I’ve bought, but whether I’ve read it, and on what day I read it, and maybe how long it took me or how long I paused on certain passages or whether I reread a section. What else do they know?

Unsettling.

But, I’ll be honest, I’m part of the internet generation, and while I make a few attempts at maintaining some privacy online — using Firefox and Facebook Container and uBlock and so on — I know that in the end, I’m fighting a losing battle. I can avoid Google Chrome all I like, but my phone is Android, so Google knows too much about me already. I can stop Facebook tracking me on other sites, but that doesn’t change the fact that they get enough info from Facebook itself, and Instagram, and WhatsApp…

My data is out there, whether I like it or not, and I’m not committed enough to burn it all down to eradicate those pieces of my online self, so I just have to live in this constantly-surveilled world. I’ve made an uneasy peace with that. Accepted that in our imperfect reality, that’s the price of convenience. I should probably be angrier about it, but I’ll be honest, it feels like we have bigger problems, and I have a finite amount of energy. I’m still unlikely to ever have Alexa or whatever in my home; I don’t want something listening to me on purpose. But I’m not putting on a tinfoil hat just yet.

No, the thing that really bothered me about these Reading Insights was the fact that reading, like everything else, had become something … almost competitive. “Bests and wins”? Really? Is maintaining a daily streak of reading a “win”? For me it usually means I’m fatigued and spending a lot of time in bed: the less energy I have for other things, the more time I spend reading. Do we need to measure these things?

Part of the reason I left Goodreads, and stopped doing bookstagram, and generally took my reading offline, was because I felt like after a while it became about the numbers and statistics. It was a race: how many books could I read? How many likes on that photo? Could I complete this challenge, that readathon, this bingo card? Did I have a TBR? Was my TBR out of control? Would I like it to be? Did I have a list for this month, next month, next year?

It wasn’t me. I wanted to read what I wanted to read, when I wanted to read it. I’ve never struggled to motivate myself to read, partly because it’s sometimes the only thing I have energy for, so a yearly reading “challenge” seemed superfluous. Plus, I’m what the bookstagram types call a “mood reader” — I read things when I feel like reading them. I actually don’t have a TBR (to-be-read list), except in the vaguest sense of “oh, I’d like to read that sometime”, or my wishlist of books I want but can’t afford.

That’s without getting into all the ways I couldn’t handle consumerist book culture, or the books-as-sacred-object mindset that I encounter so often online. I eventually came to the conclusion that while I was a booknerd and a very voracious reader, I was simply not a Book Person in the internet sense of being a Book Person. I had no interest in collecting six versions of the same book, I didn’t want character-themed scented candles, I think a lot of books actually smell pretty bad, and I really don’t care if people break the spines of their own books, or dog-ear the pages, or write in them, because they’re just books.

(If you do this to my books when I lend them to you, I’ll end you. But that’s a completely different thing.)

So, I thought, I’ll opt out. Go offline. Forget the streaks and challenges. I’ll track my reading in a text file because I have a terrible memory and I need a record of what I’ve read; I didn’t track it at all last autumn after leaving Goodreads in August, and now I have no idea what I read then. But I’m not going to bother about statistics or numbers or challenges.

And all the while my Kindle is sitting there going, “You have a 22-week reading streak!”

I’ve discovered that I can opt out of these insights. I probably will. Because even in the few days since I discovered them, that competitive instinct has ignited in my brain. “I have to read today, to continue my streak,” I find myself thinking. I probably would have read anyway, but not in such a self-conscious way. Not in order to fulfil some meaningless obligation to a chart I didn’t ask to have created. Not to give a corporation more information about me and my habits.

I have a 1000-day Duolingo streak and a 4-year+ Timehop streak. The former is a helpful pressure to keep me hacking away at the mountain of language-learning, even when it seems insurmountable; it tells me that a little every day is better than 3 hours and then a month of inactivity. The latter is honestly a coincidence, the result of my fun mixture of nostalgia and memory loss, that keeps me looking back at old social media posts every day to recall parts of my life I’ve lost. Timehop is forgiving of missed days, I suspect; I know I’ve missed some in the past four years, but it keeps my streak nonetheless.

But reading? Do I need a streak for that? Do I need to be pressured into doing something that for years has been my most consistent and least demanding hobby? Do I need to make that a numbers game too?

Last weekend I was reflecting on the fact that writing, which has always been my emotional outlet, is transitioning from being my hobby to being my career. I can no longer abandon a project to write something else that better reflects my current mood, not if I’m under contract for it, nor can I stop writing for weeks because I’m depressed (unless I’m willing to explain that to my editor). In the light of this, I figured I would probably need a new emotional outlet, a new hobby, ideally one that I couldn’t possibly monetise or make into a career.

These days, it feels like we’re discouraged from having “unproductive” hobbies. We’re told to have a side-hustle, encouraged to sell the things we make. If you’re good at something, there’s an increasing expectation that you’ll find a way to monetise it. Personally, as a perfectionist who has always dreamed big, I’ve always struggled to have hobbies I wasn’t way too serious about. Within weeks of taking up Irish dance as a teenager, I was imagining going to the World Championships; I imagined going to vocational ballet school before I’d even resumed taking classes. These were impossible, implausible dreams, but symptomatic of my inability to do things casually, a mindset that society these days only encourages.

I asked on Twitter and Instagram what people did just for fun, and received more answers than I’d expected. A lot of people found video games helpful — lots of small achievements to keep the brain ticking over and happy. Some watched a lot of TV and films. There were lots of crafty types: knitting and crochet were popular, but also art. Some people played music, or baked, or went for long walks in the countryside.

And then there was reading.

Reading’s a weird one as a writer. Not only do you end up reading books by friends and colleagues and acquaintances, it can also be hard to turn off the analytical part of your brain that reads as a writer reads. I find this is particularly hard when I’m in the middle of edits — copyedits, in particular, made me judge everybody’s punctuation choices, and made it a lot harder to get immersed in anything because I was primed to nitpick. But still, when my pain levels are flaring or my fatigue is bad, it’s always the hobby I come back to. When my hands don’t work well enough to knit and my eyes can’t take the flashing lights of TV and my body won’t let me go for walks, it’s always, in the end, reading.

Not for the numbers. Not to maintain a streak. Not to reach a new personal best of number of books read in a year.

But because books give my brain a break from the world for a couple of hours, and sometimes, that’s all I want from a hobby. A chance to stop being inside my own head for a little while. A comfort when I don’t have anyone to spend time with, or the energy to spend time with them.

As a writer, I don’t always read casually. I often read critically, and analytically, and with an eye to improving my own professional skills. But that doesn’t mean I have to read competitively, as though my reading streak might be marked up on a leaderboard to see where I rank among similarly bookish friends. That doesn’t mean I have to give in to the internet’s desire to categorise and track everything with streaks and trends and statistics, to make me a more ‘productive’ reader.

I probably can’t stop my Kindle collecting that information. But I can ask it not to tell me, and I will. Because sometimes, I want to read because I’m sad or tired or lonely or bored and I want the comfort, distraction, and joy of disappearing into somebody else’s head and somebody else’s world. And that isn’t a numbers game, and never will be.


If you enjoyed this post and want to support my book-buying habit, please consider buying me a coffee or pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin.