Internet, I have many things to show you. First of all, here I am in the New Statesman on how a bookshop looks to me as a grown (female) writer vs how it looked to me as a little girl. Spoiler: it used to look like Paradise and now looks pretty depressing, but there are signs of hope, especially from Foyles.
We are only three weeks away from Launch Day! And I will be signing books and talking about Mars Evacuees at Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue, from 6pm to 7 on Thursday, 27th March! Come along.
I hope Mars Evacuees is fun and for adults as well as children. That said, it’s really nice to find out what actual kids think. I dedicated the book to my first cousin once removed (Erm, I think? Unless she’s my second cousin something something removed I DON’T KNOW, WE’RE SOMEWHAT RELATED), who read the first three chapter at a point when I’d discovered I didn’t have an agent for this book (I thought I did!) and was feeling pretty downhearted about the whole project. I wanted to find out if an actual child would actually give a damn about what I’d written so far. Freya, who was then about eleven, told me exactly what I needed to hear:
Hello, I really love Mars Evacuees you are definitely hitting the right note!! It is great I think it will be very popular and I find it very amusing and love the way it is told. Though I think that you should maybe not start so many sentences with ‘and’. The name Alice is quite an old name and maybe you should use something more modern. My best friend read a bit and she could not put it down either. I love the subject you have chosen it is very exciting. As soon as it is published I am getting my dad to go and get it for me. Also I have not read enough to know whether it might come up but I think there should be some romance between Alice and Carl. The opening sentence is great and exciting.
(She was totally right. I did need to cut down on the sentences starting with “and”. “Alice” wasn’t going anywhere, though.)
LoveReading4Kids has a panel of no fewer than nine reviews by children, which are all really positive and delightful to my heart. “’This is a fantastic sci-fi adventure, full of surprises and fun. I tore through it and loved every minute!” for instance, and “I absolutely love this book in all aspects including space!”After a certain publisher turned Mars Evacuees down on the grounds that “girls won’t read about space and boys won’t read about girls”, I’m particularly pleased to see both boys and girls praising it in exactly the same terms and often saying in so many words “this is a good book for boys and girls.” That’s the idea!
And on Monday another review came in – from Mr Ripley’s Enchanted Books. And it’s pretty amazing.
The story is both witty and smart. It is full of friendship and brilliant characters, good times and bad times as well as a few sad times. However these are all explored wonderfully by Sophia. It’s a joy to read; it has got all the ingredients required to pull off a magical space story. I particularly loved the craziness, playfulness and care free attitude that is evident through this book. This makes me, as on older reader, feel like a big kid and sometimes in this world this can be a wonderful feeling again.
I DON’T think that you can say that you’ve really lived until you have read this book.
Look, I know he said that because he’s riffing off the text on the back cover but the fact is he STILL SAID IT and I will TAKE it.
Now it’s time for another excerpt. This is from Chapter 3. We’re on the ship to Mars now. Alice Dare, meet Josephine Jerome.
Earth fought to hold on to us – we could feel its pull in our bones, and in the way the ship shivered. But we dragged stubbornly on, and the planet dropped away. And then there’s that moment when the surface you’re leaving curves in on itself and the horizon bends into a circle and you see the world really is round after all. Even though you know it’s going to happen, it’s still like the biggest, most shocking conjuring trick ever.
Now we could see the bands of white at the poles, pressing in on the bright stripe of colour in the middle. Here and there, the world glittered with little sparks which were explosions and shockray fights.
The girl opposite me whispered, ‘Beautiful,’ with a sort of break in her voice.
She was pressed as close to the window as she could get. The ship, mercifully, had stopped advising us all to imagine we were relaxing in a sunlit glade and everything felt strangely quiet and still. I don’t think I answered; I just stared back as the Earth got smaller and smaller behind us.
Then she added thoughtfully, ‘I’ve forgotten my suitcase.’
I was appalled. ‘What?’ I cried. ‘Oh my God!’ And I actually started a little out of my seat as if I could run back to Earth and get it for her.
She seemed much less worried than I was. ‘Oh well. It only had clothes in it.’
‘But – what, you’ve got nothing?’
She looked reproachful. ‘There was a lot going on,’ she said. ‘And no, I didn’t forget anything important.’ Now I saw there was a large shoulder bag slumped open on the seat beside her, the stuff inside it on the point of spilling out. So she began to take things out of it and set them on the table between us.
‘This is all you’ve got in the entire world?’
She shrugged, vastly. The shrug went all the way to the tips of her fingers and up into her hair. ‘We’re not in the world any more.’
She had: a battered tablet, which was almost the only thing that had an obvious point. A tangle of string. A magnifying glass. A gold wire star that looked as if it came from a Christmas tree. A harmonica. A square silk scarf. A thick roll of duct tape. A little round silver bottle. A small patchwork cushion, which might have started out as dark red but was now mainly grey and holey. A tiny wooden sculpture of a cat. And lots of stones, some with holes in them.
‘You have rocks,’ I pointed out. ‘In your bag. Which you’re taking into outer space. Rocks. And no clothes or a toothbrush.’
She stared at me blankly as if this was what everyone should be doing.
I did some minor flailing and said, ‘You can borrow things of mine.’
She seemed surprised, and sort of amused. ‘That’s nice of you. You don’t even know my name yet.’
‘Oh,’ I said, flustered by this point. ‘Well.’
‘It’s Josephine Jerome. Have a ginger biscuit.’
She shook a packet of them at me. Well, that was one more thing I could see the point of. ‘Alice,’ I said.
Any of my clothes would be too big on her though, I thought, looking at her. She was small and black and spindly with a pointy chin and a wide bulgy forehead. She had an explosive cloud of hair, held tightly back from her face with grips, and her large, starey eyes gave her the look of being in a mild state of shock the whole time. Though just then, it occurred to me, she actually might have been.
‘What happened?’ I asked her. ‘How come you were all so late? And you’re English – why weren’t you on the same flight with us?’
Josephine slotted her thumb through the hole in one of the stones. ‘We should have been. But, uh, there were some shockray hits in London yesterday. Everything shut down.’
‘In London?’ I said, shocked, and angry no one had told us. Despite everything the Morrors got up to, direct attacks on major cities were pretty rare. They were more about freezing everything over and zapping the hell out of anyone who tried to stop them.
Josephine nodded grimly, and gripped the stone more tightly. ‘They could flatten the whole city if they wanted; they must just want people to leave. And now we are.’
I was quiet. It hadn’t quite struck me before that at this rate the whole of Britain would probably be gone by the time I came back to Earth, if I ever did.
‘So the flight out from Belgium got diverted to pick us up. Anyway, we made it in the end. And they’ll have toothbrushes,’ she added, reassuringly. ‘They couldn’t expect us to use the same ones for years and years, could they?’
At this point we were interrupted by a demonstration of what to do if the spaceship came under attack or got into an accident (though clearly the real answer was: Die). And then a man came round with a register to make sure they’d got all the right people, although it was a bit late to do anything about it if they hadn’t.
‘Alice Dare,’ I said, after Josephine had given her name.
The crewman’s eyes lifted slowly from his tablet and he looked at me. He said doubtfully, ‘Alistair …?’
‘ALICE. DARE!’ I said, possibly rather loudly. Now, I did once know a boy called Lauren so anything is possible, but I do NOT look as if my name should be Alistair. I was wearing a skirt and as well as the pink streaks in my hair, I also had some glitter.
I always speak very clearly too, so the reason this keeps happening is that people do not listen.
A few people looked around at us and the crewman grimaced and moved on quickly.
‘I think you scared him,’ said Josephine, grinning, and she leaned forward to study me quite blatantly in a way that some people might think a little rude. ‘Dare, huh,’ she said. ‘No relation …?’
I thought, I’ve got one second to say no and come up with a whole new identity and maybe not have to deal with any of that she-thinks-she’s-so-special-because-of-her-mum stuff. And then I realised I hadn’t got that long at all, because immediately Josephine said, ‘Ohhh …’ and sat back in her seat with her eyes even wider than usual. In a lower voice, she asked, ‘What’s that like?’
I sighed. ‘It’s like nothing at all,’ I said. ‘I haven’t seen her in over a year.’
‘But that’s why you’re here,’ she went on, relentlessly. ‘Too demoralising if people heard the Morrors got you. They’d never look at that poster the same way again.’
‘Yes, well,’ I said, rather irritably. ‘What are you in for?’
‘Oh …’ said Josephine, biting her lip. ‘I sort of … well, there was this exam, and … not that they told us why they were setting it, but …’
We looked at each other, and both grinned sort of shiftily. And I knew we were both thinking that there just wasn’t a reason to be chosen for this ship that wasn’t kind of dodgy and unfair, whether it was doing well in an exam or having a famous mum or even being chosen at random (because that was the other way they did it). But there wasn’t a lot we could do about it. We were twelve.
‘Is it true your mum’s seen a Morror?’ asked Josephine, because except for some singed tentacles that had been picked out of some wreckage in Minnesota, and some bits of what might have been a head found floating in the Pacific, no one had seen a Morror back then. They were really good at staying invisible even when they were dead.
‘No. She’s got this … sense about them – you know, it’s been on the news. Sometimes she says it’s as if she can see their ships, like she forgets they’re invisible. But she doesn’t know what they look like, or anything.’
‘I thought so,’ Josephine said. She put down her stone and looked at her collection of objects on the table for a moment, wriggling her fingers absently in the air. She picked up the bottle. ‘This is a Morror ship, right? The invisibility shield guides light all the way round it.’ She slid her forefinger over the silver surface. ‘But maybe some does scatter off. Maybe your mum is sensitive to some wavelength of light most people can’t pick up consciously.’
I thought about this. Most people – Mum included, actually – seemed to think her special Morror-finding sense was practically magic. I never said so, but secretly I had always assumed it was just good luck. I liked the idea of it being something science-y like that instead. It made it seem more likely it would go on working.
‘What’s in the bottle?’ I asked.
She squirreled the bottle away back into the bag and answered, ‘Perfume.’
I wondered why someone who evidently didn’t care about clothes at all cared about perfume, but I didn’t press it. Maybe it was her mum’s or something.
She had another look at me, and grinned again. ‘You like pink, huh?’
‘Yes,’ I said, a little menacingly, because I thought she might be laughing at me.
She held up her hands, to show she didn’t mean any harm. ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’
I stared at her. From what she’d said about light wavelengths and passing exams I’d got the impression before that she must be pretty clever, except with suitcases. So this was just a bizarre thing to say. ‘I’m going to be in the army,’ I said flatly.
‘I’m going to be an archaeologist,’ said Josephine dreamily, assembling her stones into another pattern. ‘And a composer. And a mum.’
‘Why are you saying this?’ I asked, baffled.
I folded my arms. ‘Well. I expect you could write some music, if you wanted. In your spare time. And you could possibly have a baby. In your spare time. But you’re not going to be an archaeologist. You’re going to be in the EDF like everyone else on this ship. Didn’t they tell you that part?’
Josephine’s hands went still on the objects and for a few seconds she didn’t look at me. Then she threw back her head and smiled again, but in a more complicated sort of way. She remarked, ‘You’re a fairly gloomy person, aren’t you?’
‘I am not gloomy,’ I said. ‘I’m realistic.’
‘The war can’t go on forever.’
‘But look,’ I said. ‘We’re twelve. We’re going out to Mars where we’re going to have military training. We won’t be able to use it until we’re sixteen or so. So the EEC plainly think the war’s going to go on for at least four years and then some! Because otherwise it wouldn’t be worth it! And it’s already been going on forever with no end in sight – certainly no sign that we’re winning –’
‘But still. It has to end sometime. Wars always do. Everything has to end,’ said Josephine, eating another ginger biscuit and getting unexpectedly philosophical.
‘Yeah. Things like human civilisation,’ I said.
She went still again. She bowed her face over her objects and asked, ‘Is that really what you think will happen?’
She said it in a very calm, neutral voice, as if she were just curious. But it was at this point, rather late I suppose, I realised I was actually upsetting her. ‘No,’ I said, trying to sound less … harsh. I felt suddenly very tired. I looked out of the window again. ‘I just think things are going to carry on the way they are for a really, really long time.’