Hazel McHaffie

anorexia

Countdown

What a week. The brutal murder of MP Jo Cox; Tim Peake‘s return to earth after six months in space; an historic referendum on the UK’s position in Europe; … I’ve counted down to my own author-event at Blackwell’s Bookshop this evening, not just in days-to-the-referendum, but in significant news flashes. And I want to pay my own small tribute to Jo Cox and her family who have epitomised dignity, humanity, unity and compassion. If only her legacy could continue to overrule the vitriol and power-struggling and falsehoods which have characterised this campaign.

So, tonight we launch my latest novel, Inside of Me, into the bigger world, courtesy of Blackwell’s Bookshop in Edinburgh.

Stash of Inside of Me

I always knew it would be hard to do justice to this one without giving away a surprise but significant element which is only revealed at the end. So I had to explore various angles which might ‘sell’ the book to a live audience without containing spoilers. On this occasion I decided to concentrate on two points: body image and disappearance.

I suspect that only a tiny minority of people go through life perfectly content with their own body image; I’m certainly not among their number. All manner of hang-ups, me. All my life. And sobering statistics for suicide, mental health, eating disorders, self-harm, obsessions and addictions, cosmetic procedures, gender changes, all bear testament to a wider societal dissatisfaction. Small wonder, fueled as we are by the messages, overt and subliminal, from magazines and the internet; from social media; peer pressures; completely unrealistic expectations and cultural ideals. My book fits into this context, exploring what it means to live with unhappiness and troubled thoughts and unachievable goals.

One example will suffice: 15-year-old India Grayson looks in the mirror and perceives a size 3 body as grossly overweight. She aspires to have the courage to binge eat and deliberately vomit. Her mother can only stand on the sidelines, powerless to prevent her beloved daughter, on the very cusp of adulthood, starving herself to the point of collapse, forced to wait for medical intervention until the teenager is at death’s door or at imminent risk of significant deterioration. But India’s not seeking death; she’s seeking control. So how far should she be allowed to go along the path to self-destruction? What right has her mother to intervene?

Disappearance is the second recurring theme I chose to speak about. Three teenage girls vanish one after another. So does India’s beloved dad, leaving a neatly folded pile of clothes on a windy beach. Are these events connected? India’s mother has her niggling suspicions, doubts and fears but she’s suppressed them and certainly hasn’t shared them with a single soul. But now, eight years after his supposed suicide, India is convinced she heard her father’s voice on a crowded London station. She has to find him. The truth when it emerges is not what anyone expected; it challenges their notions of family and relationships, of image and identity. It makes us wonder, to what extent is it right to pursue our own goals and ambitions, when they conflict with the interests of others?

A-Lot-Like-EveAs part of my thinking about body image, I’ve been reading A Lot like Eve by Joanna Jepson. A newly ordained curate, Jepson came to fame in the early 2000s when she challenged the courts over cases of abortion for nothing more disabling than a hare lip and cleft palate. I remember her well – and her arguments. She was uniquely qualified to adopt this cause having herself been the victim of bullying and humiliation because of a facial disfigurement, and having also witnessed reaction to her brother who has Down’s Syndrome. What I didn’t know is how she has struggled with her faith and calling. This book is a moving exploration of her own battle to find acceptance and peace in her personal as well as her religious life.  And who else would see their calling to be chaplain to the fashion industry?

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Tragic deaths

It’s hard for healthy busy contented people to understand the mind of a youngster who will go to any lengths to be extremely thin; almost impossible to comprehend the anguish of their parents, powerless to halt the deadly progress. But that’s what I’ve been trying to do for my latest novel, so perhaps it’s not surprising that news of youngsters who die as a result of this craving hits me foursquare.

Memorial to a young life lostSerious eating disorders have a profound and devastating effect on both patient and family, and it’s well known that the death rate among young people with anorexia is frighteningly high. So exploitation of such vulnerable people seems particularly heinous.

This week saw the inquest into the death of 21-year-old Eloise Parry who, after years of bulimia, sent away for diet pills online to hasten the slimming process by speeding up her metabolism. They contained an industrial chemical, DNP (dinitrophenol) a dangerous toxic substance which is commonly used in explosives and dyes and pesticides. Online marketing describes it innocuously as ‘fat-burning’; experts agree it is not fit for human consumption.

So what persuades an intelligent person to acquire this unlicensed ‘medication’ in the first place, and what drives them to even exceed the recommended dose? Real desperation, distorted thinking, and perhaps too a level of naivety about the dangers of unlicensed drugs acquired online from companies with no scruples as to legality, purity, cleanliness or even authenticity.

Things certainly went catastrophically wrong for Eloise when she took 4 pills at 4am in the morning of April 12, (2 represents a fatal dose) and a further 4 when she woke up later that same morning. Shortly afterwards she drove herself to hospital, aware that she was in big trouble. She even sent a text message to one of her college lecturers at 11.31 saying she was afraid she was going to die, apologising for her stupidity. Her prediction sadly came true at 3.25 that same afternoon. Eloise is the sixth Briton to die in this horrible way – the body’s metabolism speeds up so violently that they burn up inside; nothing can be done to reverse it. What an appalling tragedy.

Eloise’s mother has appealed to others not to buy anything containing DNP. The coroner says he will write to the Government to recommend such products are not accessible. The Department of Health put out an urgent warning to the public. Interpol has issued a global warning. And yet there is clear evidence that some companies are still fraudulently importing this deadly substance under various guises heedless of the consequences.

Bad enough when the mental state of the young person drives them to starve themselves slowly. To have their susceptibility and fragility exploited so shamelessly is nothing short of evil.

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Inside of Me: a sneak preview

It occurred to me during the week that many of you are people who’ve read some or all of my novels to date. I should therefore do you the courtesy of giving you a priority glimpse into the latest offering, Inside of Me, currently being critiqued by my first raft of advisors.

Inside of Me manuscriptFor your exclusive scrutiny (!) then, an outline of the theme and the plot – never before seen!

The theme: Body image. Several of the characters in Inside of Me struggle to find their own ways of dealing with or escaping from problems related to their perceptions of themselves, sometimes with devastating consequences for their families and friends. Now, I might as well come clean and tell you that I personally have long-standing issues with this topic, so it’s been quite a troubling experience immersing myself in its various manifestations. What’s more, my recent illness (which incapacitated me for six months) added yet another dimension when I realised how much of my own perceived identity is wrapped up in what I do and what I achieve – for part of this time NOTHING!

The plot: Two teenage girls vanish. One is found dead, the other is still missing without trace. Then a Scottish nurse, Victor Grayson, 36, vanishes leaving behind a neat pile of his clothes on the beach, a wife and an 8 year old daughter. The police presume he took his own life; his wife, Tonya, secretly fears he may have been involved in the disappearance of the teenagers; his daughter, India, hangs on ferociously to her picture of her dad as her best friend through the haze of faulty memories and half truths.

Roll forward seven years, and India, now 15, thinks she hears his voice 500 miles away, on King’s Cross station. At the same time a third teenager vanishes. Events – both in the Grayson family and the police department – develop new momentum. India has anorexia and her mother believes she’s hallucinating from hunger. But India’s best friend takes up the case, and when the third missing teenager is seen at the cinema with an unknown person the race is on to find her before anything bad happens to her.

Exactly what is the connection between the missing schoolgirls, a Scottish nurse, a London florist, and two youngsters with eating disorders?

Concentration chez moi is on the next stages of the publishing process but this lovely weather is tempting me out and about as well. How fabulous Scotland is – hard to believe crimes can be committed amidst such beauty; and individuals be swallowed up by their own distorted perceptions.

Glendoick GardensPoppy

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Occupational hazard

Heebie jeebie! Talk about illusions shattered …

After a five-month enforced ‘sabbatical’ I’ve been yearning for my old life. Odd, isn’t it, how once you have time for recreational pursuits they lose some of their appeal? Anyway, recently I decided to try to winkle my way back into the world of my next novel. After all, I want to be on the starting blocks ready for a quick get away once my heart is fixed; best to get into the zone at least, and start limbering up, I thought.

Top of my to-do pile is a book by leading authority in anorexia, psychotherapist Steven Levenkron. He has an excellent reputation in the USA so I’d been saving him for a special moment in the process. Now might be the right time. I’d be in safe hands. As Levenkron says himself, Anatomy of Anorexia aims to ‘demystify this life-ruining disease.’ Exactly what I need. It should help me inch myself back into the thinking of a young girl enmeshed in this dangerous practice, and home in on any errors in my understanding so far.

Off I went.

Anatomy of Anorexia

Well, this author is indeed a hands-on expert in the subject … tick. He writes well … tick. He holds the attention easily … tick. He intersperses authentic stories of anorexics with credible advice … tick. He explains in understandable language the origins, psychology, pathology, manifestations and management of the illness … tick. So well does he do so in fact that I found myself engrossed … overly identifying … and slowly drowning in all the horror of fractured relationships and distorted thinking and devious tactics and compulsions and young lives spiraling into destruction; even all the worries that burden the therapists. Seeing in stark relief all my own hang ups and obsessions. Yep, I was back in that tortured place I found myself reduced to after reading 30 novels on the subject.

Conclusion: this subject is bad for my personal health!

Time to get out and smell the crocuses!

Crocuses

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Body image

The end of a year is traditionally when one takes stock before resolving to do better in the future, so in this spirit, on the very last day of 2014, I shall share one of my (many) failings with you.

I’m one of those countless people who feel dissatisfied with what they see in the mirror … in spite of being told donkeys years ago by a lovely man (himself a skilled potter) in our church that it’s a sin to do so on the grounds that the insignificant clay pot has no business criticising its all-powerful Maker. Sorry Derrick, but I genuinely do sympathise with folk who don’t like the casing they come in for whatever reason, and my personal problems are compounded at this precise moment by the ongoing necessity to define myself as ‘ill’. Me? I’m the strong energetic type who can rise above all weakness and still live life at a hundred miles an hour … Not any more it seems – at least not until the cardiologists ‘fix’ me! Since October when these shenanigans with my recalcitrant heart began, I’ve been aware of the need to consciously work at keeping my mood buoyant in the face of physical frailty. I don’t like what I see or feel.

So I suspect it wouldn’t take the genius of Freud to deduce that that abiding angst has quite a bit to do with my present conflict with my writing about body image. I’m struggling with the effort of trying to stay inside the skin of some of my characters who are even more tortured than I am. Body image, huh? Big subject. Cue size zero models, toddlers dressed provocatively, the obesity epidemic, self harming, cyber bullying, celebrity culture, cosmetic enhancement … you know the kinds of things our society is obsessed by nowadays. So where am I with it at the end of this chequered year?

Books on eating disordersRemember this row of books I bought by way of research a while back? Well, I’ve now read them all. Phew. Good job I’m stubborn! You’ll have noted that I haven’t reviewed any of them in this blog. Why? Because I don’t think you’d be interested. But for my own records I kept a tally of my assessment of them as I went – just a brief resume and my score out of 5. Hmm. Only three stood out as an enjoyable read, but, in fairness, a large percentage are teen fiction which isn’t my bag. Having read them all, though, I’m confirmed in my resolve a) not to write for young adults; b) not to focus on anorexia but to embrace a wider context; c) to strengthen the hooks to keep readers reading.

Question now is: can this new, more-fragile me personally cope with taking on a story which presents a much more challenging set of issues? Only time will tell.

However, thus far, I haven’t been dragged below the plimsoll line of my own tolerances, but total absorption with this topic would definitely not be good for my mental health – goodness, I’m borderline neurotic as it is! I’m also conscious of another phenomenon: the more I grapple with my characters’ uncomfortable emotions, the less they disturb me. So it will be important to remember my own initial reactions in order to be sensitive to the potential shock or outrage or revulsion or whatever of my potential readers coming to this subject without preparation.

Work to do then. But there’s a silver lining. At least when I’m absorbed in the lives of my protagonists l’m not sighing at the mirror! And I did get a stack of Christmas knitting done as I ploughed through this set of books. So it’s an ill wind …

Polo jumpers

Boys pullovers

So, here we are at the end of 2014. Thank you so much for visiting my scribblings. Special appreciation to those who’ve taken the trouble to contact me; it’s so heartening to hear about your thoughts and reactions and simply to know you really are out there. And I wish you all – whatever your hang-ups and issues – peace, health and happiness in 2015.

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What the papers say

This post should carry a government health warning: If you are quickly bored with facts or allergic to conundrums do not continue with this week’s blog.

I’ve always maintained that the subjects I write about are issues which challenge us as a society; they repeatedly hit the headlines. And this remains the case. To illustrate the point, I decided to monitor the medical ethical challenges that were reported in one newspaper (The Telegraph) for just one week (4-10 August 2014) and share with you what I found. Wow! Even I was bowled over with the sheer volume of material in this category in just seven days.

Please bear in mind as you read, that papers have their own agendas and the facts might not all be correct. However, on this occasion I’m not going to research every issue or attach links or hedge the topics around with qualifiers and alternatives; all these ‘extras’ would detract from my focal point. I’ll simply itemise the issue, and leave you to ask yourself: How would I feel in this situation? What would I do in these circumstances? What should society do? What is fair and just? What are the implications for educating the public, or our limited resources, or competing demands? … Or you can just accept the point if you prefer an easier life!

So … are you sitting comfortably? …

Perusing the newspapers

ASSISTED CONCEPTION

There’s been an outcry against the first national sperm bank (in Birmingham) which openly caters for lesbians and single women who want to start a family without having a relationship with a man.

The ongoing story of Gammy, the baby with Downs Syndrome (discussed in my last post) who was allegedly rejected by his commissioning parents following a surrogate twin  pregnancy, rolled on with almost daily updates unravelling more and more bizarre aspects, bringing the whole question of surrogacy under the spotlight.

A Japanese businessman is said to have fathered nine babies during the past two years using Thai surrogate mothers. Seven nannies have been hired to care for them. Reports vary as to his motives: from ‘he wanted a big family for himself’, to ‘he’s part of a child trafficking ring’.

ASSISTED DYING

Former teacher, Dawn Faizey Webster, has been in a locked-in state following a stroke at the age of 30, two weeks after giving birth to her son. She was featured this week completing a university degree 12 years later, by blinking using a laptop that translates her eye movements into text. And yet other people in a similar state are pleading for assisted dying because life is intolerable.

MATERNAL v FETAL RIGHTS

Women who drink alcohol during pregnancy slow the development of their children’s brains, reported researchers in Los Angeles. They compared the brains of children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and unaffected children over a period of two years.

Shutterstock image

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DEMENTIA

Saga conducted a survey of the over 50s and found that far more are afraid of developing dementia than cancer.

A study of 1658 Americans aged 65 and over has found that a severe lack of vitamin D appears to more than double the risk of dementia. But hey, the winter sun in the UK is too weak to generate adequate vitamin levels and older skin is less efficient at doing so. Cue salmon, tuna, mackerel and fortified foods etc etc etc.

A report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research has estimated that the number of people who are forced to retire early because they have (or a loved one has) dementia will double within 15 years.

PERSONAL LIBERTY v PUBLIC SAFETY

Several Britons have been quarantined over fears of the Ebola virus entering this country. It’s alleged that certain ‘special’ patients have been given specific experimental untested drugs to good effect which are not available to others.

MENTAL HEALTH

A nationwide survey of people with bipolar disorder, their carers and the professionals who treat them, is about to begin in this country. The researchers say it’s too often the case that other people remote from the sharp end are the ones who influence research expenditure; they want to remedy this. Critics question the morality of including people with mental illnesses.

A teenage girl in Merseyside took her own life after visiting pro-anorexia websites and self-harming.

ORGAN DONATION

A 24 year old, Stephanie Reynolds, has launched an appeal for a kidney for her mother via Facebook. Thousands of strangers from around the world have offered to be tested to see if they are compatible as potential donors. Her mother, Elaine, has an autoimmune element which means she cannot have an organ from a blood relation. The odds of finding a match are less than one in 10,000. Hence Stephanie’s Facebook appeal. Apparently such appeals have been successful in the USA.

Shutterstock image

Shutterstock image

PUBLIC HEALTH and LIFE STYLE CHOICES

Grizzly bears gorge themselves and become obese prior to hibernation but they don’t get diabetes. Scientists are asking: Could this offer a clue for treating humans?

A report in Annals of Oncology has stated that if everyone between 50 and 64 took a low dose aspirin daily for 10 years it would prevent 6518 cancer deaths each year and 474 fatal heart attacks. But the price would include an extra 896 deaths per annum from strokes and stomach bleeds. (Hmmmm. This one affects me personally. Some years ago, taking that small prophylactic dose for only six months triggered lymphocytic colitis which has plagued me ever since. So I wouldn’t myself describe it as poetically as Christopher Howse: ‘Aspirins are the vanilla cynosure of the rattling world of pills; unsparkling but attractive, like pearls’. Not in my book, matey! Sorry, I digress.)

It seems that prostate cancer screening could save more lives than programmes to detect breast cancer – so says a European study of 162,000 men from 8 countries. That would mean saving around 2300 lives per annum in the UK. And yet … the research has concluded that such screening should not be introduced. Why?  Because a high level of over-diagnosis (resulting from the unreliable PSA test) would mean thousands of men going through needless treatment and ending up with incontinence or impotence.

RESOURCE ISSUES

A staffing agency, Prestige Nursing + Care, has issued new figures which indicate that pensioners’ incomes have fallen further behind the cost of care homes. This is adding to the pressure on NHS hospitals and putting vulnerable elderly people in danger. Also the number of people receiving home adaptations has fallen by 12% since 2010, heightening the risk and incidence of falls and injuries.

A report, The Future of Loneliness, has predicted that hundreds of thousands of pensioners will be all but cut off from services, shops and their local communities within 15 years because of the rise in the use of the internet. The result will be a hugely inflated risk of loneliness, already a worrying aspect of old age.

A ‘wonder drug’, metformin, normally used to treat diabetes, has been found to increase the life expectancy of patients with other conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. This could mean an extra two and a half – three years for today’s 65 year olds. What’s more it only costs 10p a day. But hey, we’re already struggling with the problems of an aging society …

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has decided that a revolutionary drug, Kadcyla, that is said to give women with advanced breast cancer an extra six months of life, will not be available on the NHS because it is too expensive, even after the manufacturers have offered a discount. Countries elsewhere in Europe fund it. Ahhh, the old chestnut: if you look at the individual cases, doesn’t every family want to hang on to their loved ones for as long as possible? – well, most families anyway. But add up all those astronomical bills and balance them against only a few more weeks of life and set that against all the other treatments competing for the limited pot of money, and the perspective looks different.

Researchers at Imperial College have found that injecting a patient’s CD34+ stem cells into their brain following a stroke encourages tissue repair and may save them from death or severe disability. However, an expert has said these improvements could just be due to chance or the special care this small safety trial has provided for a tiny number of patients.

FAILURES IN CARE

The Care Quality Commission has admitted that at least 750 homes providing care for the elderly and disabled have been failing to attain at least one basic standard for more than a year. Why? Because the CGC feared legal threats from the owners of the homes. As a result vulnerable people have been knowingly put at risk. The CQC say that a new regime is being introduced to make protection much more robust.

Official statistics on NHS waiting times have revealed that the number of patients forced to queue in ambulances outside A&E departments has almost doubled in three years. In addition, over 3 million people are now on waiting lists for operations – a rise of 700,000 compared with 2010 figures.

Phew! As you can see, I shall never run out of triggers for new novels! I’m constantly thinking, What if ……?

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Novel number 9?

Several people have independently asked me this week where I’m at with novel number 9. Well, the short answer is: I’m still researching the topic – part time at that, because I mustn’t be deflected too far from the necessary task of promoting Over my Dead Body at the moment.

Truth is, most of this background work isn’t exciting enough to anyone else to report it. Goodness, some of it is even tedious for me, as I confessed last November! However, I like to focus on the positive and this week I discovered another gem that has given me new impetus.

Books about anorexiaRemember this shelf of novels I had to plough through? Well, one of them: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, has restored my faith in authors who write about eating disorders.

The storyline is pretty much the same as all the others. Lia is 18. She’s anorexic. She’s watched her parents split up. She has an ambivalent relationship with her stepmother. She constantly fights the urge to eat. She has a grossly distorted body image. Yawn, yawn. All horribly familiar.

But in Lia’s case there’s an added dimension: she’s consumed by guilt. Not because she’s stick thin and disobeying all the injunctions of her psychiatrist – no. Rather because, before she died, her ex-best friend and fellow anorexic, Cassie, tried 33 times to speak to her, increasing desperation screaming through the messages she left. But Lia refused to answer. And now Cassie has been found dead in a sleazy motel room. Alone.

So why did this book appeal? Lia’s teenage voice is authentic and engaging without the all-too-common patronising undertones. Her mental troubles are captured sensitively. She’s a haunted soul, and Anderson has managed to convey the devastating effect of such a situation without moralising or lecturing. All making us want to know why Lia ignored the pleas, how Cassie died, whether Lia will survive the trauma.

Also the writing is in a different league.

‘She’s still learning how to pick her way through the bombed-out countryside that lies between her stepmess and the mythological Wife Number One.’

‘I go up two flights and tiptoe across the polished floor of her bedroom, sloooooowly turn the doorknob, and open her bathroom door a crack. A breath of steam trickles out, filled with the sobs of a grown woman breaking into girl-sized pieces. I close the door.’

Furthermore, the author employs some simple but effective techniques which appealed to me. Scratching out the narrator’s thoughts shrieks at us/lets us know what the ‘nasty voices‘ in her head are telling her /Lia really thinks, or would say if she dared. Repetition of the haunting reality of Cassie’s death keeps Lia’s preoccupation centre stage.

… she called.

thirty three times.

you didn’t answer.

body found in motel room, alone.

you killed her.

I was beginning to lose the will to live/wonder if I’d made the right choice of subject for the next book. Wintergirls has made me believe in the possibility again. Onwards and upwards!

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Girl Under Pressure

Priority at the moment has to be the promotion of Over my Dead Body, so research on the next book has been relegated to a back seat. Sad but true. However, that doesn’t stop the ideas simmering.

Anorexic booksRemember this row of books about anorexia? Well, so far I’ve read only 7, but already I’ve come to a definite decision: weight loss mustn’t drive my story. Frankly I’m bored out of my skull with it already! Admittedly most of the books have been teen fiction and not really my kind of reading in the first place, but they’ve served a useful function in that they’ve shown me clearly what to rule out of my own writing.

It was Girl under Pressure, an ebook by Michele Corriveau, that clinched it. The only one to date with anything approaching a gripping storyline, which has held my interest, and had no sense of being a cautionary tale. It’s also sufficiently whacky to make me admire the author’s courage in tackling such disturbing themes.

The story begins with the abduction and death of a little girl, Jessie. Not an easy topic but it came as a breath of fresh air after the previous six books, and I was struck by the literary possibilities it offered. The horror for the two main families of discovering Jessie has been snatched offers a potentially powerful hook to create tension and emotional engagement from the outset. I say ‘potentially’ because sadly the author doesn’t fully capitalise on her good idea. The incident is dealt with too quickly and too coldly – a source of considerable frustration for me as a reader; but at least I could appreciate what might have been.

NB. If you’re considering reading this book, I should warn you the rest of this post contains spoilers.

 As a child, the main protagonist, Maggie, uses food to bargain with God to stop bad things happening to those she loves – it’s called magical thinking. But then food becomes an obsession. As the years go on, her OCD escalates and she progresses to stealing in an effort to stop the pressure mounting inside her. She can’t think straight until she’s stopped the voices that demand she carries out this act. Once she’s done it, she can calmly go on living her life. Stealing then gives way to a compulsion to seek out strangers for sex.

 She gets beaten up and raped more than once by the men she goes with and the reader starts to get a real sense of the power of the OCD that has her in its grip. These horrific experiences aren’t enough to stop her continuing to put herself at risk. Maggie’s husband, Alex, becomes increasingly anxious and bewildered by her behaviour; she either conjures up improbable stories, or simply refuses to talk about what’s happened. Then one day, things come to a head. She meets a man on a park bench and accompanies him to his home for sex. He thinks she’s a child because she is so tiny and looks immature, and when he’s unable to dominate her as he wants/needs, he becomes extremely violent. When she sees his face on TV as a man wanted for questioning in relation to the abduction of little Jessie, the only daughter of her friends, Maggie is appalled. He can’t be guilty; at the time in question he was with her.

In spite of her dread of exposing her own sordid behaviour, and the effect of such a revelation on her beloved husband, Maggie’s conscience drives her to go to the police to clear this man’s name. Alex is utterly appalled when he learns the truth. He leaves her, taking the children with him. But in fact her alibi is false because one of her children had changed the clock in the car. This man hadn’t been with her at the critical time. He had killed Jessie just before he picked up Maggie in the park. So she’d risked and lost everything for a murderer and paedophile.

I found the plotting intriguing and the storyline very different, but it was spoiled for me by the litter of typographical errors and the muddled point of view in places. I wanted to give it a good edit and send it out into the world spruced up.

 But, thanks to Corriveau, I’ve been able to turn a negative into a positive and learn a valuable lesson about what not to do in my own writing.

 

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A few statistics to conjure with

Out and about with the granddaughters this week, we’ve learned a lot of fascinating statistics about owls, debunking a fair few urban myths along the way. (Did you know that The Scottish Owl Centre houses one of the largest collection of owls in the world? Yep – fact not fantasy. Everything from the huge Siberian Eagle Owl to the dinkiest Scops Owl – 40 species, 100 birds.) Anyway, contrary to popular conception, owls are not wise, which makes them a fitting symbol for what I want to say in this blog.OwlLast week the following email appeared in my Inbox: ‘On behalf of the Goodreads team, I want to say thank you. You’re in the top 1% of reviewers on Goodreads! Your many thoughtful book reviews help make us a vibrant place for book lovers.’

Wow! Goodreads is ‘the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations!’ – by it’s own description anyway, so I indulged in a little warm glow. Top 1%, huh? Not to be sniffed at. But then I discovered that they’ve just announced that they ‘now have 20 million members, up from 10 million members just eleven months ago.

OK, do the maths, and I’m one of 200,000 top reviewers. Hmmm. Not that impressive, eh? Especially not since reading is part of my job. But I find their site really useful for keeping tabs on what I’ve read, when, and what I thought of each book. So thanks, Goodreads, for a very useful facility.

You might remember I was toying with two topics for my next book: anorexia or abortion. Well, I decided the next step might be to see how many other novelists have written in this area – suss out the competition. Assess where the biggest gap is.

Type ‘novels including anorexia‘ into Google and up come 52 titles through just Goodreads and Amazon. With a footnote saying ‘218 best eating disorder books’ which presumably means non-fiction. Do the same thing for abortion, and 27 come up. Hmm. Not what I was expecting. Of course, it could all be to do with shelving, the blurb available, keywords, that kind of thing. I’m sure more will surface once I start reading. And I quickly discovered that a large proportion of the eating disorder ones are teen fiction.

By reading synopses and reviews of them all, I’ve whittled it down to a dozen must-reads on abortion and probably 29 on anorexia. Looks like I’m in for the long haul, anyway. Watch out for an onslaught of reviews, Goodreads!

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To be or not to be: anorexia? or abortion?

With Over my Dead Body about to go to the printer, my mind keeps straying to the next novel. I’m simply itching to get going again. If you’re a follower of my blog you’ll know I keep a pile of folders with ideas and plots and topics for the future, and this time I’ve whittled the choice down to two: one about abortion or one involving anorexia. No shortage of material for either.

So you’ll understand why my eye honed in on two articles in Friday’s news. First up: Women who have nine abortions. Nine? Wow.

pregnant womanIn a former life, as a healthcare professional, I very occasionally cared for women who were having abortions. Actually, I’m old enough to have witnessed the effect of backstreet and DIY abortions in the years before the Abortion Act was passed in 1967, coming into effect in clinical practice in 1968. None of us would want to go back to that horror, I’m sure. Women died and were horribly mutilated. Health care staff were traumatised.

After the procedure became legal in the UK, I personally elected not to be active in the termination process, or to wish to know why the women had chosen this path, but I had no reason not to look after them as patients. Most were distressed and chastened by the experience, and I’ve known some who went on to develop mental health problems as a consequence. Only rarely did I encounter women who were using abortion as a form of birth control. But even with this background, the week’s statistics have still shocked me.

A Department of Health report shows that a total of 185,122 terminations of pregnancy were carried out in England and Wales last year. Of those, more than 66,000 were repeat procedures. Over 4,500 had had at least four abortions, 1,334 were up to at least their fifth termination, and 33 women had had nine or more. Just pause for a moment and think about that – the loss of life … and the effect on these thousands of women … and on society. Is this an acceptable set of statistics? Is this what the Bill was all about?

The second news item featured the other end of the scale: the Irish abortion Bill, otherwise known as The Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill. Back in ‘my time’ I was aware that women secretly came over to Britain from Ireland to seek the help they wanted because there was an absolute ban on terminations over there. They still do apparently (about 4,000 last year according to Irish Department of Health figures) – the sheer scale of today’s abortion-tourism was a revelation to me.

Twenty years ago their Supreme Court ruled that women in Ireland were legally entitled to a termination if it was necessary to save the mother’s life, but six successive governments since have failed to introduce legislation to enforce this. Until now. This week. July 2013. 46 years after the UK allowed legal terminations.

It was the much-publicised death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar from septic shock last autumn after being denied an abortion, which precipitated this latest attempt to make the procedure legal in certain circumstances: where there is risk to life or the woman is suicidal. And please note, we’re not talking about frivolous reasons or social convenience here; we talking about life-or-death decisions. Nevertheless, the debate has been and remains a hotly contentious issue, involving nasty things like open aggression and death threats and letters written in blood. Even Mrs Halappanavar’s grieving husband has been sent hate mail by anti-abortion activists.

This is groundbreaking stuff in Ireland. Parliament has been in an uproar, with resignations and expulsions and threats of excommunication from the church. Lobbying groups are threatening to bring court cases to challenge this new law. Even though, as it stands, this Bill only helps a very limited number of women. Those who are pregnant as a result of rape, those with fatal fetal anomalies, those who simply can’t face the prospect of another child, are not included in this legal entitlement. What would you say to that?

So yes, the subject remains an ongoing hot potato. Lots of ethical issues to grapple with. Many indeed that might get me into big trouble too were I to write about them! Only question is, will this be my ninth novel? Or will I take on anorexia? I’m still swithering.

I confess at the moment I’m really tempted by the eating disorder and all its ramifications, only that didn’t hit the headlines this week. And I have a title for that book already!

 

 

 

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