Adventurous Spines

A lot of books get an awful lot of abuse, but the best-loved and most abused, in my opinion, are the ones squeezed onto hastily-erected shelves in frostbitten huts plunged into darkness for three to four months each year. The Ice Star has yet to join the hallowed spines of polar greats, but it is on its way to the Arctic, in the library of an Aurora Expeditions adventure cruise ship – they just posted about it on their Facebook page.

I have discovered interesting books in remote cabins in the far north of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. Tracing a finger down the cracked and splintered spine of a much-read, and much-abused book evokes a sense of adventure for it takes an adventurous spirit to reach such cabins in the wilds.

In the same way that frost can often eat into a book in a remote cabin, books can eat into the miles taken to reach such places. When the stove is burning, your wool socks are thawing on the line looped between the rafters, and you’re kicking back in a bruised-wood chair, a sleeping bag wrapped around your knees, a cup of cocoa in one hand and a book in the other, well … you get the picture. There’s nothing better after a long trek, paddle, climb, or ski than following the path of another adventurer through the pages of a book.

I plan on sending more books into the wilds, perhaps you’ll find one someday.

Photo of Shackleton’s bookshelf from The Smithsonian.

But how many words for ice?

I was a teacher in Greenland. There were lots of highlights. Second to the amazing, and, at times, exasperating kids, was the role of external invigilator for the spoken English exams. Greenland must be one of the few places where the invigilator is flown by helicopter to schools in the remote settlements. Greenland is vast – something you understand when trying to get your head around distances – but from the air… well, Greenland can be a humbling experience. As it should be – something every invigilator should be exposed to before an exam. “You live here?” is a common thought to have when approaching the gravel landing square, marked with a rusty oil drum in each corner. Exams are one thing, but almost everything can have the flavour of a test in Greenland, and the results are not measured in grades, and they can rarely be captured in words.

You may have heard that the Inuit have a lot of words for snow. Honestly, I don’t know how many, and it is difficult to know when pop culture ends and the practicality of describing snow and ice begins. Until, that is, you’re standing on thin ice, with a kilometre or more of black sea beneath you. Then, as you begin to imagine sinking down in the black depths, I guarantee you will begin to imagine all kinds of words for ice, as if your life depends upon it, which it does, actually.

Once, when accompanying a hunter to check his long fishing line, my Western feet broke through the ice.

Despite weighing a good twenty kilos more than the hunter I was with, it wasn’t my weight that was a problem, it was my attitude, my angle of attack. Admittedly, the ice was only a centimetre or so thick – we had left the dogs behind. Apparently their attitude was similar to mine, although they were safe. No, the problem was that I didn’t glide or shush across the ice with flat feet, I walked, putting weight on my toes and breaking the ice. The hunter noticed, gave me a few words of advice, and shushed on ahead of me. I followed, pushing the sledge, skirting the bad ice, the really thin stuff, and taking a torturous route back to the village.

Rarely have I been more scared.

Rarely have I felt more alive.

If you spend time in Greenland, if you spend time on the ice, you’ll experience that feeling – that moment when you struggle to understand how you can have a cheesy grin on your face, while fighting the urge to pee, wondering if your heart is going to explode out of your chest, amazed that is hasn’t already.

Greenland, like Alaska, does that to you. Something I hope to have captured in my first Greenland thriller, and now as I edit the second.

If you’d like to know more you could try out The Ice Star – available in paperback and on Kindle or for Kindle apps from Amazon, or pre-order book two: In the Shadow of the Mountain, here:

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada

Alaska does that

Alaska happened, almost a year ago, and a lot has happened since. I thought it was time, for me anyway, to reflect. You, on the other hand, might want to go get a coffee… or stick around for a moment. It won’t take too long. I promise.

The Yukon River family expedition that Jane and I were a part of was an amazing experience, but, from a much more personal perspective, it was just the beginning of a deeper experience, the stimulus for change and a change of purpose.

I suppose and hope there are a lot of people out there, young teens like I once was, that dream of Alaska. I really hope there are. I hope they read Jack London stories, and stay up late at night trying to breathe the pine sap, imagining the heat of the fire warming their hands around a small campfire in the snow, smiling at the pop and snap of twigs burning. That’s what I did most school nights when I should have been sleeping.

Some twenty-eight years or so later I finally made it north, to Alaska.

I wasn’t alone.

Jane and I went together.

We shared the adventure, in the wind, the rain, in a canoe drifting down the river, on a train clacking through the wilds, on ships lurching and rolling through Prince William Sound, and on foot in the shadow of Denali.

And now I miss Alaska.

I miss the campfires, the wolf prints on the riverbanks, the fireweed bringing colour and life to the burnt-black stumps of the fire-swept swathes of wilderness along the banks of the Yukon River. And I miss those coffees with Jane in quirky Alaskan cafés, book stores and National Parks. I miss the wash houses in the Yukon villages – strangely, I do. And I miss the vibrant cultural motifs painted on the walls, and the people – perhaps the friendliest we have ever met on all our travels.

I was surprised at that. The Alaskans we met, for all their stereotypical toughness, are incredibly kind, generous people, making their living in a wild and awe-inspiring part of the world.

Food for thought.

Alaska was the real impetus for getting The Ice Star finished and out there – the litmus test for my emerging career as an author. It was also the inspiration for The Starlighter – working title – a book for younger readers about love, loss, and the end of the world. The Starlighter is gathering mental dust for the moment, but thoughts of Alaska blow that dust into clouds of creativity, tinged with a sense of guilt and the need to revisit and revise.

My Alaskan journey started with a book. Our Alaskan adventure ended with two more – and, more recently, a third, a secret project that is gathering snow, moss, and twigs as it hurtles downhill to crash into our house, to shake the foundations, and yes, give me the necessary kick to get it written.

Alaska does that.

Perhaps it is time to go back?

1,000s of things!

dsc_7874I’ve just done the math… including eBooks, paperbacks and “pages read” via the Kindle Unlimited programme, The Ice Star has just topped the 1,000 books sold mark!

I am overwhelmed by the sales. Perhaps small in comparison, but 1,000 sales in the first month feels so good. The Ice Star was never meant to be. In December 2014, when I finally submitted my first 15,000 words to my supervisor at Falmouth University, I was so done with the project. I had rewritten the entire novel twice, polished the first five chapters at least eight times, changed POV twice, I even changed the sex of the main character – yes, Fenna started out as Ravn. (Thanks, Sarah Acton!) In short, I never wanted to see The Ice Star again, and I never thought it would amount to much.

I was done.

But, Sarah wouldn’t let it lie.

Neither would my supervisor, Tom. He mentioned it was a shame not to finish it. He thought it had promise, not least for the setting.

I did pick up the manuscript – a mess of rewritten chapters, notes, and a hundred different copies of different versions – several times, but I never did anything with it. I chose to write fantasy novels instead. Then Alaska happened. I quit my job, and Jane and I joined our friends on the Yukon River. The last thing I did was load the latest mess of chapters onto my tablet computer, and imagined that one day I might look at it, just out of interest – for old time’s sake.

After two months on the Yukon River, and a lifetime’s worth of unique experiences, Jane and I got off the river and spent a week in Fairbanks, AK. The Ice Star was silent, it didn’t so much as creak as we explored the town and made plans to visit Denali National Park. But, in the park we saw a wolf, and there was a murmur and a hint of something that I remembered from a long lost passage in a fragmented chapter. I ignored it, choosing instead to squint at the fuzzy, grainy, bleary photos of a wolf’s behind.

We took the train to Anchorage, and I took a few hundred photos of Denali as it finally broke through the clouds. Jane got sick, and I celebrated my birthday, alone, at the movies. I spent $10 on a movie ticket and a cup of coffee, and indulged in a brain-dead couple of hours with Jason Bourne. Predictable? Yes. Familiar? Very. Enjoyable? You bet.

And The Ice Star was forgotten once more.


Until, that is, we boarded the ferry in Whittier. A pod of orca swam around the bow of the MV Kennicott before the ferry slipped anchor and we began our journey to Juneau. I found a table in the lounge as Jane slept and I opened the folder on my computer, and started reading, editing, shaping and listening to the characters of The Ice Star, and the story they wanted to tell.

And that was that.

The Ice Star would never have happened without the support of great friends and colleagues. No matter what happens next, and whatever the future holds for The Ice Star and its sequels, I will forever be grateful for the help and support of friends like Sarah Acton and Isabel Dennis-Muir, and the people and nature of Greenland.


Curious? The Ice Star is available in paperback and on Kindle or for Kindle apps from Amazon:

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada