Pollution in Beijing, The Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven

I know what you were thinking after the last post — ‘the pollution in Beijing is nowhere near as bad as the media make it out to be!’

Not true. That part of the wall was 2 hours drive out of Beijing, and on a day when pollution was low and the weather was good.

Here we are in Beijing, on a bad pollution day — try and guess which one I am. Don’t we look like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie with our anti-pollution masks? (which one do you think I am, by the way?)


We’re in front of the Temple of Heaven there. Not as heavenly as you might wish with the smog, but still a beautiful building.



Here I am with our lovely guide Lee (now you can check if you got it right in guessing who I am in the top photo — did you get it right? Virtual gold star and pat on the back for you if you did)


It was proper smog — like stepping back in time to the Victorian London pea soup. To give you an idea, the World Health Organisation’s guideline for maximum healthy exposure to pollutant particles is 25 micrograms per cubic meter. Beijing gets up to 500. Ouch….

We were only there for five days and yet by the end we all had picked up a bit of a cough and our clothes stunk of coal smoke. For those of you who have long hair and who smoke or have been around smokers, you know that horrible moment when you take a shower and all the smoke trapped in your hair is released once the water hits it? That was a daily occurrence in Beijing.

It was gross.

These photos, by the way, were taken on a sunny day. This was the sun:

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What was even bleaker was when we were on the train travelling from Xi’An to Beijing. Then the landscape really became ghostly and incredibly depressing:

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Especially because a lot of these sky scrapers were in desolate areas, and empty. Look at them — they look like they’re appearing out of the fog.


During the day it was less obvious, but at night, when we drove past the outskirts of Xi’An, we drove through a forest of skyscrapers, and all of them dark and empty. There’s this weird problem of ghost towns in China, where the government builds entire cities in the expectation of the enormous influx of population from the rural areas — except that once the construction is done, the builders all leave, and the cities remain empty.

We didn’t drive through these ghost cities, but we definitely drove through a weirdly deserted part of Xi’An. The cities themselves are a bizarre concept, based on the expectation that one day people will just move in. These are cities without a mayor, without a culture, an identity, or a history — without anyone actually there (at the moment) to run and organise it. Just a collection of roads and buildings and general infrastructure. As if it had all sprouted up like mushrooms under the rain.

Seeing these empty skyscrapers shrouded in smog was rather disquieting — it also gave me a renewed appreciation of how clean and bright Hong Kong is by comparison!!

On this (delightful) polluted day, we also visited the Summer Palace — winter edition, of course.


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It fronted a lake that was completely frozen over, and it had these lovely long promenades that must be very pleasant in the summer. As it was, it was so cold that I hopped and skipped and generally walked like a bit of weirdo in an attempt to get the blood flowing into my frozen toes.





The Summer Palace comes complete with marble pleasure barge, should you wish to be on a boat, without the risk of getting seasick (or would that be lakesick?) It was odd, but very beautiful. Behind it — and we didn’t get a photo of this sadly — were hundreds of yellow plastic pedalos, all marooned in the ice, waiting for the summer heat and tourist hordes. It was a pretty perfect metaphor for ‘low season’.


Alright – next up — the Forbidden City.

The Great Wall of China and an update

Well happy 2016 everyone! I hope the year has treated you well so far.

I’m back at the blog after a bit of an extended hiatus — I was actually brought back by a fellow blogger, Sarah Zama over at The Old Shelter. I’m interviewing her ahead of her new book Give Into The Feeling coming out. I’ve been wanting to interview her for a while, so I’m really looking forward to sharing the interview with you all! Stay tuned for that one.

For now though a quick update on things with me. Firstly, The Black Orchid, the sequel to The Viper and the Urchin is now in the very capable hands of Sue Archer (my editor), so it’s well on track to come out in a couple of months. Very exciting stuff. And while Sue works her magic, I’m starting on a new project that I’ve been wanting to get to for a long time: a Victorian Gothic story set in London. More staying tuned there 🙂

I also had an amazing, if slightly crazy December, with some pretty cool travelling. For Christmas my family came over to this part of the world (Hong Kong and China) and we travelled to Guiling, Yangshuo, Xi’An, and Beijing. While it wasn’t the traditional Christmas (no roast turkey and stuffing for us — not that I mind, I’m not a massive fan of turkey), it was a lot of fun, and we got some pretty stunning photos out of it (by ‘we’, I mean my father. Kind of the reverse of the ‘royal we’)

Now, if I was David Copperfield, I would begin at the beginning of our trip. But being neither Copperfield, nor Dickens (a shame — it would be lovely to be a literary genius), I shall begin by the end of the trip, with what was, by far, the highlight. It’s also probably the most amazing thing I’ve seen in all my travels:

The Great Wall of China.


Prepare yourselves for a glut of photos. It was absolutely stunning:


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It literally stretched out as far as the eye could see:


I was reminded of a line from Game of Thrones, when Tyrion Lannister said he wanted to see The Wall so he could piss off the edge of the world (for anyone living under a rock and not aware of Game of Thrones, The Wall is based on Adrian’s Wall in Scotland, separating Westeros — the world — from the wilderness and monsters beyond.) It was so easy to imagine how for the men who manned the Great Wall, that must have been like standing at the end of their world, watching out and waiting for an attack by (what they likely considered) barbarians. It makes you wonder what kind of a life they must have led, waiting in the most remote part of their world for an attack.

The Wall is dotted with watch towers. They’re little more than small, square building, providing only minimal cover against the cold and wind. If the guards spotted anyone approaching, they could signal one another and gather up the troops as needed.

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Amazingly, despite how large it is, the Great Wall has never been breached. There have actually been several Great Walls, and the relics we visit these days belong to the Ming Dinasty Great Wall – which is a mere 8,800km long. The official length of the entire Great Wall is 21,200km, and it’s over 2,300 years old.

Parts of it are very well preserved, but of course the vast majority of it is in disrepair, with chunks missing.


We hiked for a good few hours, and because it was the middle of winter (and therefore low season), and also because we went for the part of the wall furthest away from Beijing, we were alone for the duration — which as you can imagine was incredibly special. We could actually stand and look out of the wall, and imagine what it must have been like back then for the soldiers on the wall.


Parts of the wall are seriously steep, mind you – not for the faint of feet! But very much worth it.

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It was truly spectacular. A real once in a life time, awe-inspiring visit — and something I definitely plan to use one day as inspiration for a story.

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Alright, next up — Beijing.

An Interview with Ravven — Steampunk and Fantasy Digital Artist

I’m really excited about today’s interview. Most of you will remember my book cover (it’s in the sidebar for anyone new to the blog), which was designed by the wonderful Ravven. Well today I’m interviewing her about her creative process.

As someone who has is utterly unable to do anything visual, be it digitally or otherwise, I found it really interesting to dig a little into what goes on behind the scenes when creating digital art. Before we get stuck into the interview, I wanted to showcase one photo in particular that really struck a chord with me. It’s called Medusa in the Boudoir:

Medusa in the Boudoir

Medusa in the Boudoir

Isn’t it wonderful? I saw it and went *wow* — and immediately contacted Ravven to see if she’d be free to do my book cover (lucky for me she was.) This is by far my favourite piece. It’s not just that it’s beautiful, or that it looks like a painting — it’s the story and the emotion that emanates from it that I really love. Anyway, enough of my gushing. On with the interview!

Thanks for taking part in the interview Ravven, and for being on the blog today! Now obviously you do book covers, but you also create pieces of digital art that are unrelated to any book. How do you start working on these kinds of project? Do you already have a full idea in mind of what you want to create and how it will look, or do you get inspired by coming across a particular photo/object/model and build the art work around that? 

I am usually inspired by images, which is why the personal art is easier. When you’re working on a cover you are usually working to a very defined brief, so of course it isn’t as free-flowing. On the other hand, it is when you work within a set of constraints and requirements that the challenge becomes really interesting – sometimes you end up with something very special that you may not have come up with on your own. At its best, a cover is a collaboration between the author’s ideas and the vision of the artist. It’s why I love this work!

At times I need to take a step back and just let the creative batteries recharge before I begin doing commercial work again. It’s nice to have the freedom to do that and I feel very fortunate! This feels like the best of both worlds.

In relation to your question, personal pieces usually start with a central stock image that I fall in love with. Sometimes I want to do something around a concept (loneliness, etc.) but usually I just fall in love with a stunning image and want to create something with it.

The thing that really struck me about your art is that there’s such a sense of story to it (such as in the Dollmaker photo on the left). Of course, cover designs will have that element of story, but even projects that are unrelated to any book seem to be a moment in a story. When I look at them I want to sit down and write the story I can see lurking behind the artwork. Is this something you set out to do? Do you try to create a story or characters, or is it purely visual for you?



For me it is very visual, but the image won’t work unless it develops a story. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it feels as though it unfolds as you work on it and becomes something more – often something that you didn’t originally intend it to! It’s probably a lot like a writer pantsing rather than plotting. Unless it becomes something much deeper than you originally intended, it won’t be as successful. It may be a pretty image, but won’t have any emotion to it.

That makes perfect sense. I think that happens with any creative process, even if there is a plan or outline beforehand. Art in whatever form always seems to take on a life of its own after a while.

Do you only work in digital, or do you also work with more traditional / analog methods? If you work with more than one medium, which is your favourite and which is the most challenging?

Currently I work almost exclusively in digital. I used to do all watercolour (actually, pen and ink overlaid with watercolour), but currently I only work digitally. My drawing skills aren’t at a professional level and never will be, so I can’t satisfy my love of photo-realism. 🙂 Years ago I worked in the art department of a high-end photo studio in Los Angeles and I learned a lot about retouching and subtly enhancing or changing a face. I still use a lot of those skills now, but the work is done in Photoshop with a Wacom tablet. Much easier than working with photo dyes or working on negatives!

Madonna of the Desert

Do you take inspiration from other art forms, like film/books/music/video games?

Always. I think that as creatives of any kind we always take in inspiration from everything that we see and experience. Books, movies, games, art – everything goes into the subconscious hopper and becomes new ideas. There are a lot of movies that mean a great deal to me because they’re so gorgeous visually, such as the Jennifer Lopez movie The Cell. Admittedly not the best film ever (more of a guilty pleasure), but such a dreamlike gorgeous movie!


Could you give us a very quick walkthrough of the process of creating a piece of digital art?

On a book cover project, I’ll normally start with models first. I do quite a lot of mockups for all the models that I think might work, but usually only a few backgrounds/environments. The models are composited with the background to give a feel of what the overall cover will look like, but usually they don’t all have the correct hair or clothing – piecing that together is very time-consuming and I don’t do it at this stage. I have text on the image mainly as a placeholder so I’m not tempted to fill that area up with detail, but it will all be changed later on.

Once a model has been chosen, I’ll do a much more finished version with the correct clothing and hair. This goes back to the author for approval before I start the final paint layers – this will give all of the detail, highlights, shadows, etc. Then we have a final round of mockups with different fonts and text treatments, and we’re close to done. I covered this in more detail here: http://www.ravven.com/blog/2012/08/rainbird-birth-of-a-book-cover/

Thank you so much for being on the blog today Ravven! I really enjoyed chatting with you. 

Desert Warrior - Ravven

Desert Warrior – Ravven

If anyone’s looking for book covers, I can’t recommend Ravven enough. She currently has a selection of beautiful pre-designed covers that you can find here. Even if you’re not a writer looking for a cover, you can have a browse through her art portfolio here. Finally, you can find out more about Ravven’s custom book covers here.

Connect with Ravven: 


A Day in the South of France – photo challenge

Eileen over at In My Playroom took part in a wonderful challenge a few weeks (or possibly even a few months) ago. The challenge was to take a photo every hour or so throughout the day and post them on the blog. Now I didn’t get tagged in that challenge, but I thought it seemed like a really fun way to be a bit more aware of my surroundings and to look for pretty things in the day to day, so I took part anyway.

I am cheating a little a lot, mind you, because this post — sadly — doesn’t reflect a normal day in my life. It was a day while I was back in the South of France, visiting my grandfather — and it was a lovely day! I’ll do a post of a normal day in Hong Kong soon though.

5.30am: Unable to sleep because of jet lag (there’s 7 hours between HK and France), I make the most of the early morning fresh air, and go sit out on the balcony to read my book (I’m re-reading The Phantom of the Opera)IMG_3950

7am: Heading out to buy the morning’s baguette. I am very excited.

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7.15: ok that’s not an hour later, but I have to post a photo of what is my favourite meal of the day. Petit déjeuner is ready — this time I had acacia honey rather than jam. For those who read my A to Z post, you’ll notice that the ceramic bowl is colourful, slightly cracked, and the baguette is nearly ready for dunking. My mother remains, as ever, unimpressed with my breakfast eating methods.

IMG_40029am: We head out to meander in the market

Photo a Day10am: We buy some figs and a cabas (Kelli, I’m tagging you here after we talked about figs a little while back for one of your A to Z posts. These were delicious!!)


11 am: pop into a second-hand furniture auction house and spy a pretty painting.

IMG_3970-00112pm: On the walk back we pass a pretty terracota couple


1pm: Lunch!! On the balcony, bien sur. Fresh ravioli a la daube (which is like slow cooked beef)

IMG_40302.30pm: We drive out to Gourdon, a village at the edge of the world. Or at least at the edge of a very precipitous cliff.


Here I am with my grandfather at the very edge of the village — the wall behind us is the one you can see at the rightmost edge of the village above.


3.30pm: A pretty candle shop and another shop selling perfume and eau de toilette.

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4.30pm: We spot a fig tree growing out a wall (sadly the figs weren’t ripe). And since no trip to the South of France would be complete without some calissons and nougat, we make a pit stop at a little confiserie where they make it all by hand. They were delicious.

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6pm: on the way home we stop by an old olive oil mill. When she was younger, my mother used to bring olives here from my grandparents’ olive trees. The old mill no longer works, but there’s a modern mill round back. Sadly it was already closed by the time we got there.


8pm: The table post dinner. I’m totally pooped after a long day and still completely jet lagged, so it’s an hour of reading for me before falling asleep.

IMG_3948So there you have, it a day in the South of France. I’ll do another post on Hong Kong soon — although not quite of a typical day or you’ll get lots of photos of my computer screen. Which, trust me, is even less entertaining than it sounds.

I’m tagging a few others bloggers who I think might enjoy this challenge. No obligation to take part if you don’t want to. And obviously if I didn’t tag you but you want to take part, do it anyway!

Sabina over at Victim to Charm.

Sammy at Bemuzin (I’m being selfish there Sammy. I want to see more of those beautiful landscape photos of yours!)

Sarah at The Old Shelter. Sarah, you may consider this the latest instalment in our challenge-off 😉

Kelli at Forty and Fantastique.

L. Marie at The Blog of L.Marie

Sara Snider

Emily from A Keyboard and An Open Mind

Denise Young

Anabel from Anabel’s Travel Blog

Long Time No See!!

I’ve been a very naughty blogger and have completely neglected the blogging world for the last month or so. Sorry. *hangs head in shame*

In my defence, we moved apartments (see last fascinating post about wall scrubbing) and a few days later left to go back home for a few weeks.

Now I know some people are very good when it comes to keeping social media up to date with what’s going on in their life, as and when it’s happening. Instant updates, after all, are the whole point of social media. And there were a few times whilst we were away when I thought: “Oh, I could tweet/blog about that”. Continue reading

Shanghai, puzzles, and bladder pressure.

The husband and I went to Shanghai for a long weekend just recently. I know it sounds pretty exotic, but for us it’s actually only two and a half hours by plane, so kind of like going from New York to – I don’t know, Boston? Philly? I have no concept really. Suffice to say it’s just around the corner.

So anyway – you know when you’re on holiday with your significant other, and it’s a Saturday night, and you decide to go to a bar together for a drink, and you just walk in through the door?

Well, let me tell you, that is SO passé. So 2013. It’s boring. It’s mundane. It’s banal.We westerners are way behind the times.  Continue reading

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

I have a confession to make. So far I’ve let you all believe that the writing on this blog (and on The Book, though you have not yet had the delight of sampling that particular bit of wordsmithery) is all mine, when it fact, very little of it comes from me.

You see, everything I write is meticulously torn apart edited by Blue Cat (look at those stern eyes, that disapproving stares as he picks out all my instances of weak writing):IMG_1688 Continue reading

X is for Xtremely Powerful Photos That Capture The Human Experience

Never has the saying “a picture paints a thousand words” been so true as with the collection of photos I’d like to share with you today (I wish they were my photos, but they’re not).

Each photo is so full of emotion – some are big and explosive, some are small, intimate moments captured on film. Collected together these photos take us through the breadth of human emotions and experience, and it’s a touching journey to go through them all.

Here are a few of my favourites and you can go through the whole collection here

A North Korean waves at his South Korean brother after inter-Korean temporary family reunions.

Continue reading

V is for Views and Vistas of the Hong Kong New Territories

Over Easter, my husband and I spent the long weekend hiking up in Northern Hong Kong, in the New Territories. We did half of the Maclehose Trail, a huge 100k trail that crosses the whole of the New Territories from East to West. Some nutters athletes do this all in one go for the annual Trailwaker race. A friend of Will’s holds the record with his team for doing all 100k in just over 15hours. I know, I don’t get it either. It makes me want to lie down and have a snooze.

The hike was really good fun, and the views were breathtaking. On the first day we did 17k, on the second day 22k, and 16k on the third day (we had aimed for 28k but our legs gave out. Again how anyone does 100k in one go is beyond me). We climbed up around 1k of elevation a day, and descended about that much. I don’t know if what we climbed are big hills or small mountains. I’m going for small mountains because it sounds much more impressive.

What was incredibly though was the sheer variety of the views. At times it felt like we were going from one country to another, what we were seeing was so different.

We started off at High Island Reservoir, where the water was an incredible turquoise colour:


Doesn’t this look like it’s right out of a James Bond film? It could be part of Dr No’s lair.

Continue reading

Q is for Quantum Leap in Follows (and an invitation to promote your blog/book/art/whatever as a thank you)

This is a bit of a tenuous link to the letter Q, but I’m going with it.

This weekend marks the 1month anniversary of this blog (yay!), and after writing yesterday’s post I decided to pop over and check out my blog stats. I’ve purposefully kept away, because there is nothing more depressing than looking at a big fat zero under the “follower” heading. So, imagine my surprise to find that I had broken the 60 followers mark (Quantum Leap! There’s the tenuous Q link 😉 ) So a big, BIG thank you to all of you who follow and take the time to stop by and read/comment. I love hearing from you, and it’s been a fantastic way to discover new people and new blogs too.

To celebrate my one month blogiversary (is that a thing?), I wanted to give something back to you all as a little thank you for sticking with me for my first month. Continue reading