Luke Skywalker’s Midlife Crisis


antastic building in the desert - photo by leshiy985/Shutterstock

Photo by leshiy985/Shutterstock


A New Hope (the first of the original Star Wars trilogy) was first screened in cinemas in 1977. I was a one-year-old at the time. Throughout the eighties in the UK it was pretty much a staple of Christmas TV, so I would’ve been between 8 and 11 years old when I first saw it. So there I was, an impressionable pre-teen, and in love. Luke Skywalker was the first person I became limerent for, and boy was it confusing! I have a very distinct memory of being at home when my parents were throwing a party and walking around in a kind of love-induced swoon. There were lots of adults about, eating and drinking and chatting, and all I could think about was Luke Skywalker, and the burning ache in my chest that the image of his face produced in me. What was this strange, intense sensation, I wondered? It was, of course, limerence.

Another memory. We were in Spain for our summer holiday. Star Wars was being shown on an outdoor screen. The whitewashed walls of the Spanish villas, the dry heat and sand, all made me feel as though I was actually there, in Tatooine. There was something very magical about that screening (although I wouldn’t have been able to articulate exactly what at the time). And there was Luke Skywalker. The hero. Someone to fall in love with, but also… someone I could relate to.

Back home in England, living in suburbia, life an endless round of getting up, going to school, coming home from school, I understood Luke’s dissatisfaction with his dull life of farming. When was something going to happen to me? When would I be starting on my own hero’s journey?

Later, I cursed myself for wanting more of life. For wanting excitement, for wanting to grow up sooner rather than later. Because, in a way, my own hero’s journey began with a death. My father’s death, to be specific. And when that life-changing event happened I very much wished I could unwish my previous wish for something to happen. Remember – be careful what you wish for. It might just come true.

Throughout university, further studies and work, Star Wars was always there. A comforting reminder of a happy childhood. Of dreaming about other worlds. Of a hero battling adversity. Doing the right thing at all costs.

The prequels came and went in my twenties. I watched them, of course, but for me the magic just wasn’t there. Was it because of the actual craft of the films? The sometimes impossible CGI? The new characters? The sometimes dodgy storytelling, the ropey dialogue? Or maybe I couldn’t connect with the films because I was older…? I’d experienced real life, after all. And these films had very little to say to me.

A decade or so passed. I continued on my own heroine’s journey, motherhood the next stage of it

The third trilogy – the films that dealt with the years after The Return of the Jedi – was about to happen. Now this was exciting! We were, at last, going to find out what happened to Luke Skywalker. I’d get to see how my childhood hero was doing. What great things he’d achieved.

The Force Awakens came and went. Okay, no magic there. But it was a fun film, the new characters pretty cool. Having a female lead, Rey, was a breath of fresh air, but I felt her to be ever so… one-dimensional. And incredibly capable. Good for her, but I couldn’t really relate to her.

We only got a glimpse of Luke Skywalker at the end. I wanted to cheer, to whoop, when he appeared on screen. There was so much expectation as he was presented with his old light saber. Here was the hero, the hero of my childhood, and he was going to be marvellous (when things really got going in the next film).

But then, last year, The Last Jedi came out. I suspect that many other midlifers like me, were excited. Expectant. But, for me – for many – the film failed to deliver. Social media was awash with opinions. I read article after article. Interview after interview. Mark Hamill hadn’t been happy with Luke’s new story (no surprise there). I wasn’t happy. Other people weren’t happy, although some were. People argued. As what seems to be the norm in this “age of outrage”, deep reflection and nuance got lost.

So, as usual, I reflected on the film, took some time; came to some conclusions of my own. I thought some of the new characters were endearing, interesting, full of potential. The film visually impressive. But with my writer’s hat on the storyline was, um, problematic, shall we say? But these were asides to the real issue: Luke’s story.

So, on the assumption that approximately 25 (Earth years) have passed since we last saw Luke, what did he actually do during those years? Well, we know that he founded a school for young Jedi. Taught them. That his powerful nephew came to his school (about 15 years into his teaching career) and Luke had concerns… which led to a crucial moment of potential action (coupled with fearful indecision, hesitation) which plunged the whole galaxy, apparently, into turmoil. His school was destroyed, his whole belief system destroyed, and he became a recluse for the next decade.

In short, Luke goes through a midlife crisis and does not deal with it terribly well. In the film, “Luke the recluse” is the worst kind of teenage cliché – he is dismissive, stubborn, angry, uncommunicative.

This is a man who, in the original trilogy, learnt control, patience. When to strike, when to not strike. In The Last Jedi he has unlearnt all his learning. The hero who went on to mentor other Jedi is now a stroppy, sullen teenager. He is stuck in midlife, permanently in crisis. Way to go Luke. (Or rather, way to go screenwriters.) There will be some that argue that at the end of the film, all has come good. Luke, the hero, has returned. I’m open to that idea. But all the stuff before… no. Just no.

As a midlifer who has experienced challenges, crises, whatever you want to call them, and who will no doubt continue to have to ride stormy seas in the future, I do not want to see my childhood hero unable to cope with the hard stuff. I need to see him grow and face new challenges with maturity and wisdom. I still need him to be my mentor. He’s been teaching other Jedi. Where has all that experience gone? What has all his life amounted to?

Of course, it is just a film. Yes, but also no. Star Wars plays into the collective unconscious. It is full of archetypes. The hero’s journey. All things that speak to each one of us at a deep, fundamental level. So when a beloved character acts out of character in a film that means so much to so many people, it jars.

But this is out of my hands. Our hands. Maybe us midlifers need to move on, accept that our hero of the original trilogy has long-vanished; that this latest trilogy means so much more to the younger generations than it does to us; to allow them their own magic (which can maybe only happen in one’s formative years). We have other stories to look to. Other archetypes, other, perhaps older, characters to invest in. To look to for guidance as we move into the next phase of our lives and see our own children grow and mature and take centre stage. Of course those characters are there. Surely, they’ve always been there. Thankfully, the movie industry appears to be more open to other characters. To older characters. But, still, we may need to seek them out. They are there. In our lives. In the books we read. Maybe overlooked, but still there. Patient. Waiting for us to unearth them. Let us discover them. Let us find a new hope.

Prose for Thought

The Dread of the Tax Return (especially if you’re an HSP)

Cartman doing taxes, photo by Marija Smits

You gotta respect the authoritay.

So… January has come and gone, and with it the deadline for filing personal tax returns. For various reasons, which I won’t go into here, I ended up in a bit of a mad panic filing my return on the day before the 31st January deadline. I hadn’t planned on doing it so late, but that’s the way it turned out. As I felt my chest tightening, frustration gnawing at my throat, I sort of stepped outside my body, looked at myself in an objective way and asked: Why are you so stressed? You’ll have to have a good think about that one day. Write it down. Figure it out. (The two are interchangeable nowadays.) It may help.

            Now that it’s February – ah! beautiful February – I can put down into words my thoughts on the matter. It will: a) be useful for me in the future and b) may be of help to others.

Some observations about the actual process of filing tax returns:

  • HMRC, a governmental authority, is, in many ways, an “authority figure”. Rather like a great big God (complete with flowing white beard) who lives in the sky. Or Big Brother watching you. Or a strict Victorian patriarch who must be obeyed. Or a faceless, voiceless, disembodied entity who hovers above and behind one’s head, just out of sight.
  • There is a deadline for filing returns. A penalty awaits those who fail to file their returns on time.
  • The form is long and involved. Like (to quote Eric Cartman) “hella” long. It is full of financialese, and incomprehensible to most “ordinary” people.
  • Sometimes just getting through “security” (and all the associated texts to mobiles/letters to old addresses/chanting various incantations in just the right order, to have the pleasure of even beginning to file the return) is a challenge/mystery in itself.

Some observations about HSPs:

  • HSPs are (obviously) very sensitive to changes in stress levels. HSPs like things to be calm, quiet and not overwhelming/over arousing (and I’m not using the word ‘arousing’ in a sexual sense here! Just in a general, sensory overload way). Yet even thinking about HMRC waiting for me to file my return brings me out in a cold sweat. I believe that HSPs have a particular sort of fearful respect for authority figures – which, in part, comes from our high level of conscientiousness. Doing the “wrong” thing i.e. not filing the return on time, very much strikes at our moral compass, our integrity, almost like a physical pain, and so the idea of not filing the return, and doing something wrong can bring about panic. Also, HSPs don’t want to displease the authority figure; to anger someone so powerful. We just want everyone to get on, be happy, be calm, because that makes us feel calm.
  • For some, time pressure can help them focus; bring about brilliant work. Not so much for HSPs. And especially not for something like filing our tax returns. We hear the clock tick tocking, every second bringing us closer to the deadline and a potential telling off from the Daddy of All Taxes. Panic sets in. Clear thinking goes out the window.
  • And what do you need most when faced with a series of questions written in financialese – a language us freelance creatives only ever encounter once a year? Yep, that’s right. Clear thinking. (Which has already gone out the window if you’re getting even a smidgeon too close to the deadline for your liking.)
  • And… finally. All this panic (which results in hand wringing, hair pulling, teeth grinding, pleas to the financial gods-that-be etc.) most certainly reinforces the idea in one’s head that one is not a competent, intelligent and rational person who is even capable of filling in a form. Hell, you’re not even sure you’re worthy of appearing before the Grand High Overlord of All Things Tax-related, you’re that much of a lowly maggot. Cue an existential crisis. Or at the very least, crushing despair and a lowering of self-confidence.


So, have I got any tips for patching up this egregious mismatch between HSPs and filing tax returns? You betcha!

  1. Get an employer who will give you a PAYE tax code and remove all tax filing responsibilities away from you. Seriously, I often long for an employer-knight in shining armour to take away all my tax troubles – although past experience has told me that being in a bad job is simply bad, bad, bad. THE BOSS may well very quickly dump his/her shining armour to become the new dreaded overload. Sadly, good bosses are few and far between.


  1. If no. 1 isn’t an attractive-looking option, or not at option at all for whatever reason, do consider employing someone to take away the stress of the tax return. Even the spectacularly useless Bernard from Black Books wisely took on someone to deal with his taxes. Brilliant comedy ensued. If this option is too costly either find a patient and financially-minded friend who is willing to help you out (either for free or in exchange for some of your brilliant art) or…

  1. Put on your I-can-do-this superhero cloak and prepare for battle! Ideally, you’ll be needing to enter into battle 3-6 months before the deadline to make it as stress-free as possible. Remember, you can actually save your return as you go (it does work, I’ve checked) and do it in stages.


  1. Take screenshots of every single page of the tax return as you go (with your answers within). As these will be timed and dated you will end up with a series of screenshots that take you from beginning to end. (I’ve found that the PDF/HTML completed return that HMRC provides you with at the end is baffling/gobbledygook, so screenshots page by page are better.) Then file them away safely. This will hopefully be incredibly useful for next year when you find yourself stumped by any particular question (that’s as long as year on year your tax return remains pretty consistent).


  1. Stock up on chocolate/tea or whatever takes your fancy while you do the task. Keep giving yourself treats and it may just trick your mind into thinking that you’re doing something pleasant.


  1. Keep reminding yourself that despite any tax return problems you encounter, you are in fact a worthwhile, confident, intelligent and (mostly) rational being, and that YOU HAVE GOT THIS. And if all else fails? Overcome your fear and unwarranted reasoning that you don’t want to waste anyone at HMRC’s time with silly questions and give them a call. Often, a very nice person will help guide you through the form. And if you get stuck in a phone cue, a jangly tune rattling in your ear, grab a pencil or pen, start doodling or start writing a poem or short story. Or sing along. Or rant. Or practice your deep breathing. Who knows, you may end up so blissed out you may start levitating.*


To recap. You are brilliant. And intelligent. And worthy enough for the financial gods-that-be. And… YOU HAVE GOT THIS.


*Not guaranteed.



Imagination, Inspiration, and Ursula Le Guin

01 2018 Ursula Le Guin books, photo by Marija Smits


Since my husband is a scientist and I’m an ex-scientist, we both love science fiction (reading and writing it). We often discuss science fiction and enjoy having a good old rant, or rave, about the plausibility of the science within the stories. When I’m reviewing science fiction for Shoreline of Infinity I very much consider the book from a scientist’s viewpoint, and am strict about the plausibility of the science. (Though this occasionally gives me the wobbles – the tame woman in me not wanting to be disliked for saying something not 100% pleasing to the masses. My wild woman sighs and roars off the tameness that has a habit of clinging on.) Just the other week my husband, wanting to give me some encouragement, emailed me two of Ursula Le Guin’s articles – about plausibility in imaginative fiction and literary snobbery and, once again, I was eminently comforted by the fact that such a great writer continued to be such a passionate champion for the SFF genre (as well as a champion for the importance of plausibility in the genre).

So when social media became awash with the news of her death, I, like many, was saddened by the news. People were sharing her poetry, snippets of her writing; what her books had meant to them. These quotes stood out for me:


Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality…

…Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

Ursula Le Guin from her speech at the National Book Awards


To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it. Ursula Le Guin from Steering the Craft


I don’t have anything particularly insightful to add to what others have said (indeed, I questioned whether I should even write this blog post), but I had an urge to say something. To write something. For as a woman who writes science fiction, who passionately believes in the genre and the importance of plausibility within the genre, and who wholeheartedly believes that the act of creating something requires a “surrendering”, I wanted to say ‘Farewell’ and ‘Thank you’ to Le Guin. She will continue to inspire me and countless others.

Reflections on a Decade of Mothering

As we near the end of the year I can’t help but look back. 2017 was a big ‘mothering year’ for me as my firstborn, my daughter, turned 10. A big milestone – for her, for me. It’s taken me a while to process this! So I wanted to share my reflections, but to sort them into two sections – a serious part, and a less serious part. Feel free to read one or the other, or both. 🙂

The new bike, photo by Marija Smits

The new bike, photo by Marija Smits


Reflections Part 1 (The Serious Part)


1. Strength

When my daughter (who is a highly sensitive person [HSP] like me) is worried about something – some upcoming event, some friendship issue – I always tell her that she is strong; that she can get through it and cope. She always disagrees, saying something like, ‘But I don’t feel strong!’

I do find it difficult to articulate how we all have this inner strength (especially when externally we don’t seem “strong” – physically, or even socially) but I show her the evidence – reminding her of times in the past when she got through difficult or stressful events. That seems to help (a bit). But this reflecting on her past also reminds me that my decade of mothering has helped me to tap into my inner strength. As a quiet, highly sensitive person, I often feel weak and wobbly – not strong at all – and then I remind myself: hey, you gave birth! That wasn’t “nothing”. And don’t forget the fights you fought on behalf of your baby girl and yourself: to continue to breastfeed when nearly everyone thought you were “cuckoo”: to continue to co-sleep and keep close to your girl for years and years… And the “fights” continue although, of course, they are different, centering mainly on school/academic issues, friendship and social issues. I don’t welcome the fights, but at least I can tell myself this: you are strong. You can handle this.


2. Empathy

When times have been acutely tough I’ve had to remind myself: hey, you’re the grown-up here. Deep breaths, tapping into the inner strength that I mentioned earlier, and digging deep for the empathy that’s always there but may have vanished temporarily for any number of reasons – sleep deprivation, hunger, lack of time to oneself – have absolutely turned a high-stress situation around. Humour, too, can be an amazing way to alleviate (or at least pause) a fraught situation. And this ‘honing’ of empathy has benefitted me in all areas of my life.


3. Compassionate Communication

For me, one of the biggest benefits of becoming a mother has been the discovery of my tribe (a group of like-minded mothers). I found my tribe when I went to La Leche League GB breastfeeding support meetings. And then I went on to become a voluntary breastfeeding counsellor. Part of the training to become a counsellor involved me learning about compassionate communication. Oh my goodness! Learning about this stuff was absolutely eye-opening; it really has made me aware of all the barriers to clear communication, and how to shift those barriers, and to also find the middle ground between passive and aggressive ways of communicating (it’s called asserting). For an HSP who finds it difficult to speak up and out it really has been a godsend. Check out my thoughts in the ‘life-changing books’ section of the blog if you want to know more.


4. Trusting your Instinct/Learning to Let Go

Gosh, this one’s tough! Again, part of maturity, to becoming a ‘whole’ individual – a true wild woman – is knowing when to let go. Accepting that your children have to grow, step away from you, fight their own fights, and make their own way in life is tough. This can feel absolutely heartbreaking, but it’s also necessary. The key is to listen to one’s own inner voice – a mother’s instincts have been well honed over time (we’re talking millennia here) – so we instinctively know when our child is, or isn’t, ready for taking on a new challenge. The trick is to listen to that voice and to be true to it (which can be especially hard when lots of other people have loud opinions that contradict yours).


My girl and me, photo courtesy T. Bellamy

Toddling days, photo courtesy T. Bellamy


5. Acceptance

Some parents have very specific ideas of who their children should be. They may have laid out whole career/life paths for them. It’s understandable to make plans and have dreams like these, but the reality of who our children really are often ‘upset’ these plans. That’s when a flexibility of outlook, open-mindedness, and non-judgement all come into their own. Our child may not be the genius academic/Olympic medal-winning gymnast/maths wizz that we wanted/expected them to be. What then? Accepting our children for who they are, just as they are, and supporting them in their own life choices is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.


6. Self-care

In the early years children’s needs – to be fed, to be held, to be close – are frequent and intense. This is natural. But meeting those needs (particularly without support from extended family/friends) can be tough, just because of the intensity and frequency of the needs. Asking for help can be difficult but often essential. When I was in the thick of cluster feeding, frequent night waking and round-the-clock nappy changing it felt as though this stage in my life would never pass. But of course it does. I now focus far more on meeting my needs. Like my need for exercise, eating healthy food, time for creativity, time with my husband. I remind myself that all these things are about investing in my children too. I want to stay as healthy (in mind and body) for as long as possible so that I can enjoy watching my children grow into adults; and maybe go on to have children of their own.


7. Boundaries

Another tough one; particularly as it’s something that I find hard in my day-to-day life too. Boundaries are about setting sensible limits for the kids (for instance, on things like screen time, eating junk food/sweets) as well as the precious ring-fencing of family time, sleep time etc. but of course this principle extends to other things – like when friends/family/colleagues impose themselves upon you and try to move past the boundaries you’ve made that keep you comfortable, safe, happy. That’s when saying things like, ‘no’, ‘enough’ or asserting in a diplomatic way (things that doesn’t always come easily to me) is ever so valuable. This takes practice, but it can be done, and will make your life better because YOU are the one in control. Sometimes saying ‘no’ to a social event/volunteering gig/work thing (so that you, the parent, have some precious time to yourself), or saying ‘no’ to your child when they whine for sweets is actually the most loving thing that you can do for yourself or your child. But it’s tough to do. And you’ll often have to deal with the immediate (and possibly) spiky consequences, but in the long term it will pay off.


8. Love

There’s nothing quite like going through the intensity of parenting to make you look at your partner with fresh eyes. To see their strength, their empathy, their fierce love is really quite something. I will always be grateful for having my husband alongside me in those intense years of parenting our babies. And I am glad to continue to have him alongside me as we venture into the future, the challenges of parenting not as intense perhaps, but still just as challenging, because of their complexity. Plus, I just happen to really really love him.


Walnut hearts, photo by Marija Smits


Reflections Part 2 (The Less Serious Part)


1. Baby Wipes

If I hadn’t become a mother I may never have discovered baby wipes. Seriously, they are amazing. Everything can be cleaned with baby wipes – dirty bottoms, dirty faces, the oven, the floor, kitchen surfaces, car upholstery, even the cat! Everything. Genius. (Oh, and for very tough-to-remove carpet stains I can recommend Mr Muscle oven cleaner.)


2. Playground Frolics

Children give you a good reason to have a sneaky go on the swings, or roundabout, or see-saw, or whatever. (You know, so that you can check that the equipment’s safe and fun.) Just don’t get too carried away. A toddler crying because mummy won’t share is not cool.


3. The Perfect Excuse to…

not go shopping, or out, ever again. (Introverted HSPs who could happily stay at home 24/7 will understand what I’m talking about.) Also, the perfect excuse for being late. Like every single time.


4. Computer Games

I often justify playing Minecraft by myself because my son asked me to ‘do a little something’ in our world. So what if the ‘little something’ turns into a whole afternoon mining (or killing zombies)? God dammit, sometimes you’ve just gotta do what you gotta do to help your kids out.


5. Getting into Art/Building Humility

Okay, this one’s a tiny bit more serious, but there’s really nothing like doodling alongside your kids, having fun with colouring pencils/felt tip pens/paint and allowing yourself the opportunity to create crap (or otherwise) pictures. Who knows, you may grow a whole new career out of it, just like my talented friend Doodlemum did – or, like me, you could just be very pleased to have created something you wouldn’t ever have dreamed of creating a decade ago.

And as an aside, it was just the other day I realized that whenever I draw an idealized version of myself (see below) what I’m actually doing is drawing a picture of my daughter in the future. Seeing myself more as the background, as opposed to the foreground, is a humbling (and useful) experience.


At the swimming pool, by Marija Smits

At the swimming pool, by Marija Smits


A realization, by Marija Smits

A realization, by Marija Smits


6. Cake

The past decade has seen me ingest a huge amount of cake. You see, there’s always so much of it about (at toddler groups, mums’ meet-ups and breastfeeding support groups, as well as school which regularly holds fundraising events where baking and cake stalls are a feature). But I’ve done my duty manfully (or, rather, womanfully…?) and eaten ALL THE CAKE in aid of many a good cause.


7. Time Pressure

Seriously, there’s nothing like becoming a parent for having the realization that time is precious. Before I became a mum I had oodles of time – huge bin-bag sized heaps of time (which I filled appropriately i.e. with junk). Pre-motherhood I used to talk about how busy I was to write because I had work and house stuff to do, oh, and watching telly and socializing and faffing about. Then I became a mother and realized that, actually, this is what ‘no time’ looks like. Round the clock care for a tiny human being hugely contracted my available time to create. But… what’s amazing about motherhood is the sheer ingenuity of mothers who magic time out of the day to create. It might just be a scrawled five lines of poetry while your toddler happily plays with blocks (though realistically we all know they’re more likely to be pulling off books from bookshelves/busy flushing your phone down the loo/ingesting cat food or Geomag balls etc. etc.) but that poetry making is precious. And worthwhile. If you keep at it, you’ll soon build a collection. And even watching CBeebies can help to motivate you to become a poet/poetess. If Abney from Abney and Teal can do it, so can you.

p.s. I am not endorsing letting your toddler ingest cat food or Geomag balls. Both have scant nutritional value, and as someone who’s spent a worried 18 hours from the said ingestion of a Geomag ball to its evacuation (and subsequent rifling around in poo to recapture the damn thing) it’s really not worth it. But judging by this thread on Mumsnet I am not the only mum who has had this experience!


8. Christmas

Ah, this one’s bittersweet. For me, Christmas was never quite the same since my dad passed away (I was fifteen when he died). But now Christmas is something I look forward to again. It’s just so wonderful to see the grins on the faces of both kids as they wake up on Christmas Day, sleepily muttering, ‘It’s Christmas!’ And luckily, Father Christmas happens to be rather good at packing my stocking with lovely goodies too.


And lastly…

…a THANK YOU to all the kind readers of my blog who continue to pop along, read, share and comment on my eclectic posts. Wishing you all a very Starry-You Happy Christmas and all the best for 2018!


Starry-You by Marija Smits

Starry-You, by Marija Smits

Reviews of Books by Women – Are There Enough?

Although there are many successful women authors in the science fiction genre today, it still feels, at times, as though it’s a genre very much dominated by men. This came into stark relief for me when I attended a sci-fi panel at a lit fest a couple of years ago; the panel consisted of four white men, and I remember thinking: Really? What does this say about the genre? Do I, as a woman, have a chance of breaking into sci-fi? Am I confident enough to submit to a magazine where I don’t see that many stories by women being published? I was pleased to hear the chair of the panel apologize for the lack of diversity, saying that this wasn’t really representative of the genre, but when I questioned him on why, if this wasn’t representative of the genre, it had still come about, and whose responsibility was it – readers, writers, publishers, event organizers? – to ensure that panels (and the genre as a whole) were diverse, a good answer wasn’t forthcoming. But then I got heckled by a man at the back of the audience who called out, ‘But it’s all about the story!’ (the implication being a good story was a good story, no matter if a man or woman wrote it, but evidently these four men were superior at writing good stories… hmm). So that told me.

Shoreline of Infinity magazines, photo by Marija Smits

When I became serious about reading more contemporary science fiction, I came across the then new(ish) sci-fi magazine Shoreline of Infinity. In search of a good read, I took a look through the reviews page and was immediately struck by a) how few books by women were being reviewed and b) how few of the reviewers were women. This wasn’t anything particularly startling; if, like me, you’re aware of VIDA, and their collated statistics, their findings over the past 8 years make for a depressing read – in pretty much all of the literary magazines/broadsheets they found that reviews of books by women, along with women reviewers, were in the minority. And yet it is women who are in the majority when it comes to being book buyers.

It can be easy to throw up one’s hands and say: ‘Oh well, what a shame, these things will never change!’ but they will never change unless we all say, ‘Enough!’ and do our bit to read more books by women, more books by BAME and marginalized authors, and, crucially, to review those books so that they can get more attention and thus (hopefully) more sales, which will send publishers the message that yes, we want to read more from these writers, which should give them the impetus to publish more by these authors. (And as an aside, being part of the indie publishing world I can’t help but notice that it’s the indies who are leading the way in this respect – ever much more so than the risk averse let’s-publish-another-book-by-a-celebrity-it’ll-be-a-hit conglomerate publishers. The message from this article by Danuta Kean is certainly encouraging – that small indie presses are publishing more diversely and reaping the benefits in increased sales and new readers.)

I am now a reviewer for Shoreline of Infinity (in the main, I review books by women); I genuinely enjoy ‘doing my bit’ PLUS I get free books and get to exercise my critical reading skills. Bargain! And what I love about Shoreline is that they’re taking their low number of fiction submissions by women seriously. In fact, issue eleven will be a women-only issue. So if you’re a woman sci-fi writer, do check it out.

Other exciting things happening right now are this: the well-respected indie publisher And Other Stories will be making 2018 a year of publishing women only (in response to Kamila Shamsie’s original call for a year of publishing women). Influx Press have a current call for submissions from women of colour only. And Linen Press and Mslexia are continually open to submissions by women only. My press, Mother’s Milk Books, considers submissions from both men and women, but I tend to get a lot more submissions from women than men. I think some male writers may consider my press too “motherly” or too “milky” for them!

I would actually encourage any writer/reader to take up reviewing for a magazine, or, if reviewing for a magazine isn’t for you, then there’s other platforms to review on – a personal blog, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, Goodreads etc. These are all good places to help spread the word about books by women.

I will leave you with the following reviews and a little nudge: go write a considered review of a book by a woman (bonus points for it being published by an indie press!).




Pseudotooth by Verity Holloway

11 2017 Pseudotooth, by Verity Holloway

‘Never judge a book by its cover’ so the saying goes, but of course we all do, and Unsung Stories, a fab indie press, have a particular skill in creating great covers, so I wanted to read Pseudotooth the moment I set eyes on the cover.

Since most of my writing this year has concentrated on short stories, most of my reading has been of short story collections and anthologies, so I became rather worried about whether I’d actually be able to read a whole novel. And at just over 400 pages, Pseudotooth is a long novel. But, considering its length, it was a compelling read, and I seemed to fly through it.

Pseudotooth is a difficult-to-categorise novel though. It’s not exactly magical realism, but not quite speculative fiction either; yet the writing is lyrical, the narrative dreamlike, the themes – trauma, mental health, otherness – powerful and thought-provoking. The protagonist, a young woman called Aisling Selkirk who is having unexplained blackouts (pseudo-seizures), is a well-drawn and sympathetic character, the milieu (first, the austere and chilling parsonage, and then the is-it-real-is-it-not realm of ‘Our Friend’) fascinatingly image-rich. I’m not entirely sure the more open-ended ending is for me (I love a good strong resolution) but I think that’s very much up to the individual reader. Pseudotooth really got me thinking about the issue of how best to support young adults with mental health issues, and I would love to discuss it with any one else who has read it.


Bone Ovation by Caroline Hardaker

11 2017 Bone Ovation, by Caroline Hardaker

Bone Ovation is a debut poetry pamphlet, published by Valley Press, another indie press I greatly appreciate. As I’ve mentioned before, I find it takes me a long time to read a full poetry collection, but pamphlets are a brilliant way to slip some poetry into your day. You can carry them in a coat pocket or bag and dip in (and out) of them easily.

The theme of the pamphlet is ‘bones’ and in many of the poems the theme is obvious, in others, not so much. Many of the poems are written from a woman’s point of view, or are about a particular woman; I loved some of the characters – the girl from ‘The Girl Who Fell in Love With the Mountain’, the enigmatic being from ‘The Paper Woman’, the woman from ‘The Woman is Like a Picasso’. But my favourite is definitely the soul-gobbling grandmother from ‘The Rains’.


The Rains


Each raindrop contains a soul

I’m told, and sleet is nought

but the urgent need of the dead to meet

their loved ones once more in the mortal world.

To stroke their skin, to leave a living trace;

a tear drop – a thin, translucent meridian.


My grandmother never used an umbrella

and would tip back her head and eat the rain.

She said it made her feel alive again.




Reading this collection I was struck by how, in places, it reminded me of Angela Readman’s The Book of Tides, a very fine collection indeed, due to the striking imagery, the layered and rich vocabulary, the magical/fantastical themes throughout. Yes, there were (to my mind) some poems that weren’t wholly successful, either because they were too opaque for my taste, or they had the occasional line which had end rhymes or internal rhymes that didn’t quite work, but overall, I felt this to be a strong debut, and one that makes me want to read more from this up-and-coming author.


Waking Mama Luna by Jessica Starr

Waking Mama Luna, by Jessica M Starr

This is a slim, self-published collection of 5 tales about womanhood and motherhood. I actually read this a fair while ago and meant to review it a lot earlier, but of course, life got in the way. The stories remind me of traditional fairy tales since they are plainly-written, with no literary frills added for effect. Some of the tales are tragic, some are resolutely happy, some are instructive. The whole collection makes for an easy, uplifting read and I remember really looking forward to ‘treating myself’ to another story because they felt so full of love, so familiar, so comforting. And really, what more can a reader (especially one who loves fairy tales) ask for from a book? Thank you Jessica!


And finally… huge thanks and WELL DONE to Sara for all her hard work on The Prompt linky. I am sorry to hear that this is the last ever The Prompt link-up (this week’s prompt was ENOUGH) but I am sure that Sara will continue to keep on inspiring and connecting (in particular) women writers.

The Appeal of Halloween to an HSP Who Doesn’t Like Horror

I’ve never liked horror – films or books – and the few famous films in that genre that I did watch when I was in my teens/early twenties (Silence of the Lambs, Seven) pretty much freaked me out so much that I quickly realized that although a lover of fantasy and science fiction, horror was never going to be my thing. Two decades later I haven’t changed my mind on that. Which is why I think my husband gets confused by my love of Halloween. So recently, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about Halloween that I enjoy so much. This is what I came up with:

1) Halloween means different things to different people. Obvious, I know, but as an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) I am really not into Halloween as ‘night of horror’ (or the accompanying gruesome, horror film-derived masks/costumes, or horror film watching). But, linked as it is to Samhain, what fascinates me about Halloween is that it is considered to be:

“…a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld thinned. This meant the Aos Sí (pronounced /iːˈʃiː/ ees-SHEE), the ‘spirits’ or ‘fairies’, could more easily come into our world and were particularly active.” From Wikipedia.

As a lover of all things fae, uncanny, otherworldly, (and the pleasantly spooky, but not horrifying, spine-tingling that otherworldliness affords) this is pretty much my thing.


Spirit of the Night, by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Spirit of the Night, by John Atkinson Grimshaw


2) Dressing up! As an HSP I hate getting out of my comfy tracky bottoms and into something… less comfortable. But as a lover of art and all things beautiful I relish the idea of ‘me as art’ i.e. transforming myself into something otherworldly. My kids enjoy this bit too.

3) Pumpkin carving. Another chance to get creative, but with fruit! (And to also light lots of cheery candles.)


Pumpkin eating pumpkin, photo by Marija Smits

Pumpkin eating pumpkin, photo by Marija Smits


4) Halloween baking. Over the years I’ve made my fair share of pumpkin soups, stews and pasta dishes (not to mention the sweet treats). Again, my creative side likes the opportunity to cook something I normally wouldn’t cook.

5) The chance to chat to neighbours. Okay, as a prefer-to-stick-to-the-comfort-of-my-own-home HSP I’d rather stay in my house than take my kids trick-or-treating, but going trick-or-treating does push me out of my comfort zone to actually talk to people. It helps me to put a ‘face to a house’ (if you see what I mean) and to remember that the majority of people are actually pretty kind and go out of their way to make little kids feel like the stars of the (Halloween) show. One lady always gives us apples as well as sweets, and I’m pleased to say that my kids seem to value her jewel-red apples as much as the sweets!

6) Recently, I’ve enjoyed finding out more about the Day of the Dead (my daughter’s been particularly fascinated by this) and making links between all the global Halloween/All Souls Day festivals as well as Skeleton Woman/Lady Death, from Women Who Run With The Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (Skeleton Woman being another facet of the Wild Woman). It’s important to acknowledge the ‘life, death, life’ aspect of our lives, and nature, and Halloween is one of the few festivals to do that.

7) A chance to play party games (such as apple bobbing) or to put on magic shows, shadow puppet shows… anything not too scary suits me just fine!

8) It reminds me of my childhood… and dressing up and going out trick-or-treating with my big sister and her friends. I felt ‘very big and grown up’ to able to do this, and I remember it as being fun (it helped too that my parents treated the whole thing as one big child-friendly party). I think I was nearly always a black cat (it was an easy costume to put together), which suited me fine, because cats are great.


Our new cat, Mitsie, photo by Marija Smits





Gifts of Nature; Summer Reminiscing

Today is a bright day, a glorious day, and I am glad of the autumn sunshine since, lately, the world has felt very dark.

My children are on half-term holiday this week and I am slowing down a bit workwise so that I can spend time with them, help them with homework, and catch up with some much-needed cleaning and mending. I’ve also been playing around with inks and had various ideas for art pieces zipping around my head – well it is Inktober! – but more on that another time. However, today, I want to reflect on something else – another time that felt slow yet quick, hard but easy, intense yet rewarding… the six weeks of the summer holidays.

Sometimes, I feel that documenting the “small” things is unimportant, trivial, but when things get dark, as they are apt to do when we are so overwhelmed by information, then focussing on the “small” things can be of great comfort. Nature, in particular, gives of its healing gifts so freely… and it never ceases to amaze me how getting out into nature, a park, or simply working in the garden – weeding, pruning, digging, all things that are intrinsically “wild” – immediately makes me feel so much better. Calmer, grounded, “more me”.

We have a splendid cooking apple tree in our back garden, and this year, I remembered that the apples are ready for picking earlier rather than later, so me and the children spent quite a lot of time up the tree, and up the ladder, harvesting apples. (Our cat also had fun following after us!) As my husband hadn’t pruned the tree for a few years we had a bumper crop, like buckets and buckets. So we gave away buckets and buckets to passers-by, and in doing so, I was rewarded with the knowledge that others would be cooking and enjoying the apples too. Hating to see good food go to waste, I did my best – I really did! – to use up all the apples we did keep. I made apple cake, apple crumble, apple flapjack, stewed apple and no doubt various other puddings that I’ve already forgotten about. The kids picked blackberries from the local and ever-bountiful bush and so we also had apple and blackberry crumble a few times.


Cooking apples, photo by Marija Smits

Cooking apples, photo by Marija Smits


This summer, I’ll also remember as the summer of ice cream. My son decided that he wanted to set up an ice cream shop, so I borrowed an ice cream maker from a friend, Googled recipes, bought ingredients, and then we were good to go. We pretty much made everyone’s favourite – mint choc chip, rum and raisin (somehow my husband and I managed to vanish that one pretty quickly!), banana and blueberry, and raspberry. I’d wanted to make an apple crumble ice cream too (basically, apple puree with cooked crumble topping swirled in) but never got around to doing it. I also wanted to experiment with non-dairy milks: coconut cream, almond milk etc. but ran out of time. But, as I keep telling myself, these ideas will keep, they’re simply on hold.


Ice cream shop, photo by Marija Smits

Ice cream shop, photo by Marija Smits


The summer holidays were also when I did “Mummy School” i.e. a bit of reading, writing, maths and art most weekdays so that the kids weren’t too out of the loop for when they were back at school. They (mostly) enjoyed this, particularly the making-of-the-timetable bit, although I know they would’ve happily foregone it for the lure of the screen…

Creativity-wise, I read and wrote a bit, but as I had a real longing to work with ink, I picked up my dip pen and started copying pictures… anything, really, that I liked the look of. And as the Scooby Snacks card game was another firm favourite this summer holiday, I ended up doing some copies of the baddies from the pack of the cards. (By the way, I was sorely disappointed by the lack of obviously female baddies in the card pack – which I often mentioned to my husband and children. So they challenged me to come up with my own female baddie to add to the deck. Watch this space…!)


Scooby Snacks card game, photo by Marija Smits

Scooby Snacks card game, photo by Marija Smits


I’ll admit that towards the end of the holiday I felt like I was wading through treacle as lots of things (workwise and writing-wise) were being put off until the eventual “back to school” and the quiet and time it affords me. But, overall, I felt that we were productive in our relaxation and work. And as our county may be changing the times of our holidays next school year (not to mention the fact that this year is my big girl’s last year at primary school) the summer holidays felt particularly special.

And so now to autumn, the end of the hanging baskets (compost and flowers all a gift from my kind and green-fingered father-in-law), and the last of the tomato crop.


Tomatoes, photo by Marija Smits

Tomatoes, photo by Marija Smits