I was asked by the people at new book recommendation site Shepherd to share my favourite books on things I’m passionate and write about. As many of you will know, The Secret of the Tirthas is about Lizzie Jones, a teenager who inherits a magical ‘garden of rooms’ deep in the Herefordshire countryside and then discovers each of the rooms has a portal to a special place on the planet.
I always thought it would be great if you could step outside your back door and travel instantaneously to somewhere on the other side of the planet. And, of course, portals are a neat analogy for the power of the imagination.
So my first selection of books for Shepherd is my five favourite books with portals for children and young adults. They include books by Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman and you can check them out here.
Do you like portals in books? If so, which are your favourites?
Photos have a big impact on my writing. Often, they can inspire a scene that inspires a whole book. This picture of my son looking across a landscape has morphed into the opening scene of my current work in progress, Alice and the Devil, the third book inThe Ghosts of Alice series.
Shortly after I took it, I set it as my wallpaper on my laptop. It was a few weeks before it began working its magic on me. Initially I had an idea for a wholly different book, a piece of speculative fiction, but then I realised it could fit with a ghost story. Who is the boy? Why is he on his own? What’s with the sheep in his backpack? And that barn to the right – doesn’t it look a bit like a pair of eyes, the dark, disembodied eyes of the farm? Just add a torrential rainstorm and the whole Alice and the Devil story came to life…
Here’s a few more photos that have worked their way deep into my imagination for other books:
#picsthatinspiredbooks – The Boy in The Burgundy Hood
This is the fabulous Ightham Mote, the fourteenth-century house that inspired Bramley Manor in the first Ghosts of Alice novel, The Boy in the Burgundy Hood.
As soon as I saw it, I knew that this medieval house was the perfect setting for my ghost story. I’d already been inspired by the strange story of a job interview that my wife had gone to at another old house (see here). It wasn’t long before I overlaid the two elements and started to evolve my plot.
Pics that inspired The Secret of the Tirthas
Now here’s some photos of the amazing garden of hedged ‘rooms’ in Herefordshire that inspired my young adult adventure mystery series, The Secret of the Tirthas.
Many of the rooms had sculptures or statues, often from different religions. I thought it would be great if they were all secret portals to related sites across the world. Imagine just having to step outside your back door to go to all these fabulous places!
The discovery of these new places through the portals by Lizzie Jones became a ‘fantasy’ element in itself. That, plus the demonic killer also using the portals to prey on street children in the first place Lizzie discovers, Kashi, the Indian City of Light…?
Photos that inspired The City of Light
Finally, here’s the incredible city of Varanasi, or Kashi, in India, which inspired the first novel in The Secret of the Tirthas, The City of Light. I went backpacking in my twenties and came down into India from Nepal. This was the second place I stayed and I was stunned.
I kind of knew straight away that this would inspire my writing. But it was only many years later, after discovering the hidden gem of a garden in Herefordshire, that I had the idea for The Secret of the Tirthas. And I decided on Kashi as the first place our hero Lizzie Jones would come after discovering the garden’s magical portals.
Here’s a taster from The City of Light, when Lizzie emerges from the portal:
“[She] stopped, stunned, finding herself looking at the most extraordinary sight she’d ever seen.
An ancient sun-bleached city sprawled before her, stretched along the bank of an enormous river. The city’s buildings were a bright, exotic mix of colours – red, ochre, sand, and white – and many had domes or intricate beehive towers. Some sat at the top of broad flights of steps that ran down into the water, whilst others were perched on the river’s edge. A few tilted forward precariously, appearing as if they were about to collapse into the swirling waters and be lost forever. And everywhere, on the steps and in the buildings and out in small boats, the city’s inhabitants went about their business in the soft, hazy sunlight.
Lizzie stood in awe, absorbing the view. If only all her dreams were as impressive as this…”
So where am I at with the writing, you ask? (You didn’t? Click away now, no one will notice.)
2021 has been a big year for my writing. It was the first year I had a bestseller and the first year I sold over 2,000 copies of one book (nearing 2,500 now). The average book sells 250 copies according to my Gurus, Prophets and Market Analysts (Google), so I’m very happy.
So what was the book? It was the first in my Ghosts of Alice series, The Boy in the Burgundy Hood. It’s been a strong seller since November 2019 when I published it. But it really took off in February 2021 after a promotion on Bookbub, which led to the #1 spot in Amazon’s Ghost Story categories in the UK, US, Canada and Australia. (If you’re a keen ebook reader and like good deals, I recommend signing up for Bookbub.) The reviews that followed were good so the sales continued. When you’ve been writing for a few years, getting that level of reader response is a real joy!
My next writing achievement in 2021 was publishing the second book in the Ghosts of Alice series, The Girl in the Ivory Dress. It follows on from the first, developing the relationship between Alice and one of her old school friends. The reviews have been almost all good so far (there’s always one…), with some saying they like it even more than the first. It reminded me of how enjoyable it was to write the second book in my young adult series, The Secret of the Tirthas. Whilst the first, The City of Life, was mostly fun, learning how to plot and integrate storylines, as well as setting up a whole new fantasy scenario, was challenging. There were many rewrites. It felt so much easier when the groundwork was done, when everything was already established. The Book of Life flew from the keyboard.
My third writing milestone just missed the end of the year. I finished a draft of the latest Ghosts of Alice book on the 3rd January. It’s working title is Alice and the Devil. It has a distinctive atmosphere and setting and I’m pleased with it. However, it’s going to need a few stiff edits because I wrote it without a plot, with only a few key scenes and characters in my head. It was my first time writing like this but it seems to have turned out well. I’ll probably find a lot of holes when I reread it, but for now I’m just pleased to have completed it.
2022 Writing Goals
My main writing goal for 2022 is to publish this third Ghosts of Alice book. I’m aiming for it to be out in the spring.
I’m also finalising a novella prequel to The Secret of the Tirthas. It focuses on the discovery of the tirthas and the creation of the magical garden of rooms at the turn of the 19th century. It’s called Swift: The Story of a Witch (I’m fairly sure that one’s going to stick). It might become a freebie to my email subscribers.
And finally, I’m going to start and – hopefully – complete another book! I’ve got a few ideas bubbling away already…
I’m excited to announce I’m joining a massive Freebie Friday giveaway this Friday 12th November 2021. Seventeen books from fifteen authors will all be free, including the first book in The Secret of the Tirthas, The City of Light!
Here’s all the books you’ll find free on Amazon (and in some cases elsewhere):
The mega-giveaway is organised by a group of fabulous authors who I’ve been connected with for a couple of years on Instagram – do go check out their books on Freebie Friday!
I’ll be giving The Secret of the Tirthas an additional boost by extending the free promotion of The City of Light on Amazon a bit longer than the others, from today until this Sunday 14th November inclusive.
Wait, what? There’s more…?
Plus I’m also going to be discounting the second and third books in the series for a whole week. From today until next Wednesday 17th November, The Book of Life will be reduced from £2.99 to 99p (99c US) and The Dreamer Falls will be reduced from £3.99 to £1.99 ($1.99 US).
Discover more about Kashi, the real Indian City of Light here, and the magical garden of rooms in Herefordshire that inspired The Secret of the Tirthas here.
Please share news of Freebie Friday with your friends – The Secret of the Tirthas is perfect for lovers of His Dark Materials and Harry Potter, but there’s books in there to suit readers of most genres.
Click on the links below to find out more about the books – and happy reading!
Now that we’re properly into the spooky season, read on for an update on my latest ghost story as well as for details of my Halloween sale.
What I’m writing now
I’ve started writing the third Ghosts of Alice story, with a working title of Alice and the Devil. What’s interesting about this story is that I normally start with an outline plot but this time I’m writing as a pantser, as it’s informally known in the trade. Most writers are plotters, but there are a few (including some pretty significant ones) who just start off with a premise and see where it takes them. Stephen King is possibly the most famous of these.
Normally, I work out a clear path from start to finish involving some major ‘set’ scenes. My plot it usually fairly skeletal and I do regularly change things as I progress – but I always have that overarching sense of direction. But this time I’ve got the premise and the scenes but couldn’t fully grasp the ending, so I’ve started writing and am seeing where it leads me. The worry is that I end up in a dead end that takes a huge amount of rewriting. But I have to say it’s going well so far and I’m almost halfway through (I think!). Let’s see what happens…
Ghost of Alice Halloween sale
Both The Boy in the Burgundy Hood and The Girl in the Ivory Dress are reduced from £3.99 / $4.99 to 99p / 99c on Kindle from now until Halloween – over a 75% reduction! Scroll to the end of this post for the link straight to the Amazon page.
Plus… advance warning of The Secret of the Tirthas promo campaign
And another heads up – I’m running a major Kindle promotion of The Secret of the Tirthas around November 11th. The first book in the series, The City of Light, will be free and there will be discounts on one or two of the next books!
I wish you a suitably creepy Halloween – and as ever, thank you for reading!
Today I’m reading a short excerpt from The Unknown Realms, the last book in my mystery adventure series, The Secret of the Tirthas. It’s the moment a Venetian boy, Alessandro, sees the hero, Lizzie Jones, emerge from one of the magical portals, or tirthas, with a very unusual – and frightening – companion. I won’t give any more away for those of you who haven’t read the previous books!
If you enjoyed this reading from The Unknown Realms click below to find out more; or, if you’ve not yet started the series, click on The City of Light.
To learn about the magical garden of rooms that inspired the series go here, and about the real City of Light in India go here.
Today I’m announcing a special book sale offer for anyone who wants a paperback copy of one (or more) of my books.
I’ve realised that with the continued impact of Covid-19 on our lives, I’m unlikely to be returning to bookshop signings and other events for a while. This means I have a reasonable stock of paperbacks that I’ve decided to put up for offer.
So here’s the deal… You can order any of my books for the cover price (£6.99 for novels, £5.99 for poetry), with FREE postage and packing in the UK. For the rest of the world, I will deduct the price of the UK postage (about £1.70) and you would need to pay the difference.
On top of that, if you order 3 or more books I’ll also deduct 10% from the total price of the books.
I will also sign copies if you like, and I can do dedications for birthday and other gifts.
To take advantage of the offer, please email your order to firstname.lastname@example.org, with any dedication details etc. You’ll need to pay by a PayPal account – and I’ll need your postal address of course. Here’s a full list of the available books:
My Five Favourite series is focused around the three categories in which I now have books published. The last post was my Five Favourite Creepy Stories, and the next and final one will be Poems. That means this time it’s my Five Favorite books aimed at the audience of my own series, The Secret of the Tirthas. These are mainly pre- and early teens, but with crossover appeal to older readers. They’re books that I think can be enjoyed by the whole family – or at least all of them over nine-years-old!
1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
OK, so there’s no surprises with the start. Harry Potter is hardwired into our lives now for a very good reason – it’s brilliant. I’ve chosen Goblet of Fire as my favourite although it’s marginal over the first and all the later ones.
Why do I like this one in particular? I like the fact it’s where it starts to get properly dark, with the fate of Cedric and the proper return of Voldemort. I like the first battle between Harry and Voldemort. (I also like the fact the Quidditch World Cup in the film is set on the Sussex Downs, near where I was born.)
Whilst including Harry Potter is a no-brainer, I will admit something here. When I first tried to read the Philosopher’s Stone I was turned off by one phrase on the first page and put it down… for years. It was only thanks to my wife, a big fan, that I picked it up again, pushed past that section – and then devoured the whole lot in a few weeks one summer.
2. Northern Lights
So I’m getting the obvious out of the way first. Philip Pullman has been a major inspiration in my writing. I like Northern Lights best out of all the books in His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust. I love the settings, the cold north and Oxford spires, the armoured bears, the nuanced appearance of Mrs Coulter – and of course the sharp mind and character of Lyra.
3. Chicken Dance
Now for something completely different. I read this book on my own years ago, and then read it again recently to my two boys. They loved it too.
Chicken Dance is the story of a boy who lives on a chicken farm and gains fame in his hometown by entering them into competitions. Don Schmidt has his own special take on the world, quirky, cautious and observant. Despite poor treatment by his family, he remains the true grown-up – even when events take a strange turn, and he begins to investigate the mystery of his sister who supposedly died when he was born…
I remember my excitement at seeing a Tintin book, King Ottakar’s Sceptre, in a shop in Eastbourne when I was nine. I was staying on a long summer holiday with my grandma. I asked her if I could buy it with my book token but she was hesitant as it was a comic (or graphic novel, as we’d say now…) She eventually agreed and so began my passion for Tintin.
It was hard to select my favourite. It came down to a fight between this one, Cigars of the Pharaoh, and the superb Tintin in Tibet. I chose Cigars of the Pharoah because it was a breakneck adventure and it made me laugh – a lot, especially the eccentric archaeologist, Dr Sophocles Sarcophogus. You can read about how Tintin inspired The Secret of the Tirthashere.
5. The Girl Savage
I love Katherine Rundell and find it hard to select my favourite from excellent books such as Rooftoppers, The Explorer and The Wolf Wilder. But ultimately I think The Girl Savage pips it, particularly for the sheer exuberance of the opening section where tomboy Will runs through the South African countryside, living a wild and free existence. She is loved by her father, and adores every bit of her life. But it’s all about to be shattered by the arrival of a terrible stepmother. Like all of Rundell’s books, The Girl Savage drips with poetry whilst retaining a strong sense of plot and direction.
And now for the ones that got away…
Moominvalley in November. Not really young adult, but I didn’t feel I could leave the Moomins out. I read them when I was eight, but think they appeal up to ages twelve or older. They have a beautiful combination of friendship, strangeness and adventure – surrounded by a wondrous delight in northern landscape and nature.
The Three Investigators – The Mystery of the Screaming Clock. I loved loved loved this series as a kid. They’re now out of print but you can still get them second-hand online – and I keep finding them rummaging around in old book stores. Good news, as my boys love them too!
Skellig – David Almond has a masterful touch for fantasy that subtly encroaches the edges of reality – and of the ability of kids to accept and engage with it. This story of a boy finding a damaged angel in his garage is truly magical.
Earthsea – a wonderful fantasy series from the late Ursula le Guin. The moment in the first book when the young mage Ged accidentally summons a shadow creature is every bit as dramatic as the ‘You shall not pass’ Gandalf-on-the-bridge moment in The Lord of the Rings.
A Library of Lemons – a fantastic book about the relationship between a boy and his father, struggling to cope with the loss of their mother / wife.
And finally, I couldn’t finish without superlative praise for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I read them all in my early teens but think of them as adult fantasy, which is the only reason they’re not in this top five.
If you’re inspired to read more young adult novels, why not check out my own adventure mystery series, beginning with The City of Light. What would you do if you inherited a garden with a portal to India – and found a killer was using it?
I’m excited to be appearing at the Leatherhead Book Festival this Saturday 12th October!
I’ll be reading from The City of Light and showing slides of the real garden hidden deep in the Herefordshire countryside that inspired it. I’ll also be talking about my forthcoming ghost story, The Boy in the Burgundy Hood.
I’m honoured to be in a great line-up that includes Angela Dyson and the Sunday Times bestselling author Sophie Hannah. Sophie has taken up the mantle of writing the new Agatha Christie Poirot novels!
For more information check out the Festival page of the organizers, Book Potato.