Sunday, 19 March 2017

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

The Year in Books 2016

Well, last year was so FULL of book related stuff that I stopped writing this blog. I hope what follows might explain what happened a bit. It turns out that starting up a publishing company takes a lot of time ...

Books I was writing

The Great Big Book of Friends is the fifth "Great Big Book" I have written with marvellous illustrator Ros Asquith. It won't be out till next year (the 2016 title was The Great Big Body Book, out last August). It's always fun to work with Ros on a book and we acquired a new editor, Kate Davies, when Katie Cotton left Frances Lincoln to work at Penguin/Random House. Luckily for us Kate is keen on the series!

Pirate Baby was another book I was working on - a picture book this time, inspired by the fact that two of my grandchildren live on a boat. It will be published this September in time for International Talk like a Pirate Day and Ros and I are considering our costumes. It was be published by Janetta Otter-Barry at her new house, Otter-Barry Books (see below).

Tilt and Smile

Some of the first half of the year was spent writing a book about the leaning tower of Pisa and some of the second part working on a book about Mona Lisa - both for Barrington Stoke. Tilt is out now and Smile just delivered.

Other People's Book launches
I managed to get to a lot of these, though not all the ones I would have liked to. They ranged from début author Kathryn Evans' YA novel More of Me party at Daunt's to Tracy Chevalier's At the Edge of the Orchard, Jo Cotterill's A Library of Lemons & John Dougherty's latest Stinkbomb and Ketchup Face title and Louisa Young's Devotion - a pretty varied collection!

Then there was the launch of Otter-Barry Books at the October Gallery. Janetta has been my editor at Frances Lincoln - and my good friend - since the 1980s. It was she who published Amazing Grace and The Colour of Home and started the Great Big Books series. Now she is bravely launching out as a publisher of Picture Books on her own. It was a lovely party, with everyone in the children's book world there, including Chris Riddell, the Children's Laureate.

There was quite a lot of book travel in 2016 - Luxembourg for three days of school sessions in the snow; Florence for walking the route of the App I'd been working on (see below) and Bologna for the Book Fair as usual.

And then, unexpectedly, to Riga, as a guest of the Latvian Literature Council. This was as a publisher, rather than as a writer, in case we could take on any literature in translation as we aim to do. Generous grants are available for translation in Latvia. I asked what difference it would make if Britain voted to leave the EU, never dreaming it would actually happen a few weeks later. We had a most wonderful brunch with illustrators; there is a lot of talent in this small Baltic country.

The App

I had been working for a long time on a history/story/tour app with Sarah Towle, who started the company Time Traveller Tours & Tales. In the spring we were able to spend a few days in Florence, walking the route and checking details. Much work has had to be done since then, by Sarah and her team, but it looks as if we are about to release the app imminently. It takes you on an interactive tour of Florence, visiting places and artworks from the life of Michelangelo, as told by him when he was in hiding in 1530.

The Greystones Press

This was the biggy of 2016! In April, after Bologna, the London Book Fair and the Oxford Literary Festival, we launched our first list of five titles at Blackwell's Bookshop in Oxford (another launch!) We have enjoyed it but had seriously underestimated the amount of work involved. Still, we look quite cheerful at the launch.

This April, we are publishing three more titles, so watch this space. We are learning all the time and getting better at understanding just how far in advance everyone needs the pre-publication material.

We were thrilled that Nicholas Lezard chose this title as his Book of the Week in May:

We were also thrilled to strike a deal with The Rights People, to sell our Foreign Rights. We have a Spanish deal already for The Moon: Symbol of Transformation.

Books in Question

I again went to the KidsLitQuiz (KLQ) Oxfordshire heat. Here's our Author Team:

My team mates are Cas Lester, M. G. Harris and Jo Cotterill. It was good fun.

Book group

I'm in a new Book Group, this time online. It's very new and so far we have discussed only 
Shirley Jackson's We Have always Lived in the Castle and Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone.
The first was very atmospheric and completely new to me. The latter was a re-read, helped along by having just seen the TV adaptation.

Book Highlights

Books that I would have reviewed on Book Maven in 2016  if I hadn't been neglecting the blog were - for teenagers - both set in the Ancient World:

Chosen, by Lucy Coats, is the sequel to Cleo, published the year before. (See my review)
It carries on the story of the young Cleopatra, before she was the historical and literary figure we know. She escapes from Alexandria, with her maid and companion Charmion, the handsome librarian, Khai, a group of loyal soldiers and a map with divine properties.

The journey will take her to Rome and some encounters with a soldier, Marcus Antonius, who will later become such an important part of her story. One of the great strengths of this pair of books is that Cleopatra herself knows none of the details of her future destiny. All of this early history is invented by the author and is utterly convincing as well as a thrilling ride. It's a real shame these books aren't better known.

The Double Axe by Philip Womack is an imaginative re-telling of the part of the Minotaur story. It's for a slightly younger readership than Cleo and Chosen but still deals with some hard-hitting material. Some of it he has made up, but the underlying story of the terrifying monster in the middle of the Labyrinth is still there. The main character in his story is Deucalion Stephanos, called Stephan, a lesser known son of King Minos on Crete.

The Double Axe is his weapon, as well as the symbol of the Minoan Kingdom, and Stephan wields it to good effect in the final showdown, in which we discover that things aren't quite as we may remember them from the legend of Theseus. I look forward to further volumes in this sequence.

My adult choices would have been Missing Rose, by Linda Newbery:

I remember Linda was writing this book at the same time as I started writing my first adult novel. Both were concerned with the mysterious fate of an older sister. Anyway, I bought it in an auction organised by Fiona Dunbar to raise money for refugees, and devoured it. The cover doesn't do it any favours: it is not a soppy, sentimental story at all. Highly recommended.

 and The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer by Lucille Turner.

Lucille's first novel, Gioconda, came out at the same time as my David and we met in the studio of Open Book, being interviewed by Mariella Frostrup. This is a far more ambitious novel than Gioconda, covering a vast sweep of time and place. It begins in 1442 as the Ottomans are advancing on Vienna and Constantinople.

But it is the story of two very different young men - Vlad the son of Dracul, who is prone to the family sickness of "absences" and superhuman strength, and Mehmet the unworthy heir of the Ottoman Sultan,  Murad ll. A very well-researched and gripping long (450+ pages) novel.

In addition to all the above, I have continued to run the History Girls' daily blog.

So that's 367 blog posts organised, four books written, three edited, five published (as publisher), four published (as writer), one app, sixty-six books read.

And I got a new grandchild too!

I will try to be a more regular Maven this year.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

A Tale of two book launches

In the last week or so I've been to two very different sorts of book launch. The first was in York, in a medieval building, where mulled ale and various spiced tartlets were served. After a five hour drive that got us there just in time for the speech, we were present to celebrate a book by my sister-in-law, Dr. Anna Baldwin.

Photo credit: York Press
The launch of An Introduction to Medieval English Literature (Palgrave) was special in more than one way. Of course it's always good to celebrate the achievement of a family member ("Is writing contagious?" asked another extended family member on Facebook). And this is not Anna's first achievement or book.

A First in English Literature from Girton was followed by a PhD on Piers Plowman which led to her first book. Years of teaching at York University and Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, while raising a family, were touched at first lightly and increasingly severely by deteriorating eyesight. By the time the current book was completed, Anna was virtually blind.

You can read about how she managed to complete it with the help of friends made through the York Quakers, to whom it is dedicated, in this article in York Press.

It is daunting even to contemplate writing an introductory interview to English Literature from 1300 to 1485, considering all the manuscripts in Middle English and the host of books written about them in the centuries since. But my sister-in-law doesn't daunt easily. She still cooks for the family and friends, as we were able to enjoy last weekend, even when she has difficulty locating the ingredients in her kitchen.

So this book, the fruit of many years' work is a triumph on the personal front. But it will also be exceptionally useful for both undergraduates and A-level students, in teaching whom the author has decades of experience. It is extremely readable and interesting and takes the unusual approach of organising the literature in terms of the social strata who read it or heard it. And it brings to the fore the work of women like Dame Julian of Norwich and Marjory Kemp.

The cover, showing an illustration of Mary reading while Joseph minds the baby, sums up so much of what this book and its author are about.

Launch number two was celebrated with prosecco and canapes and tiny cupcakes featuring the book's cover. This took place in Daunt's, Marylebone High Street and the author, Kathryn Evans, had also overcome a great deal to reach this eventual triumph.

Here's a picture of Kathryn consuming one of said cupcakes:

She is not only a successful fruit farmer in Sussex, she also wins medals at fencing and is an impressive belly-dancer! A publicist's dream, because not content with all that, Kathryn has been determinedly trying to become a published writer of fiction for the last fifteen years.

Her first (of many, I'm sure) YA novels, More of Me, is just published by Usborne and is based on a very unusual premise. Teva is the latest of twelve girls each of whom has been "born" by splitting and emerging from the body of the previous one. Each girl knows this will happen after a year, on her birthday, but the current Teva is determined it is not going to happen to her.

Each Teva takes over the life, the friends, the boyfriend of the one she replaces, which is not much fun for any of them.

The striking cover was designed by Hannah Cobley for Usborne and so admired is Kathryn that innumerable of her Facebook friends celebrated her big day by using the same treatment, thanks to Candy Gourlay, our our profile pictures. This is mine:

So, two great days, to celebrate two great women and their books. Here's to the undaunted (and Daunt's!)

Friday, 15 January 2016

2015 in books

I am no longer in a  Book Club, so no-one else has chosen my this year's reading, except for those who commission reviews, of which more anon. And I have dropped out of this year's Italian Literature Class, though I might go back in October. I have done thirteen years of it and this year had just too much else to do.

I've kept a reading journal for decades so I know I notched up 56 titles last year but that doesn't - usually - include books read for research.

One of the strangest coincidences was that I took to Toronto and Chicago in January Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate, to read on the plane. My travelling companion was the gifted illustrator, writer and cartoonist Ros Asquith. We were headed for the Ontario Librarians' Association's Winter conference in Toronto to sign copies of The Great Big Green Book and other titles.

As we settled into our seats and took out our books, Rose produced - yes - Love in a Cold Climate. I had been given a new copy for Christmas as mine had mysteriously disappeared from my bookshelves. Ros's was an ancient Penguin, which the representatives of that publisher pored over with a mixture of delight and horror when we showed it to them in Chicago.

A cold climate. Niagara Falls January 2015
But what are the odds? Of all the books in all the world .... It happened to my husband once too. Going to a concert years ago, he met the friend he was going with as they queued to get in. They were both holding copies of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady with bookmarks in almost identical pages.

This was the year I started reviewing adult novels for the Independent and the first one was Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins. That necessitated re-reading Life After Life, to which it is described as a "companion piece." So that kept me busy for a while; you can read my review here.

I enjoyed Life After Life a lot more the second time around. It felt so frustrating the first time; in every version of the story, I'd be getting so into Ursula's narrative and then it would just stop. But by contrast, the second volume felt a bit flat. However, virtually everyone disagreed with me, culminating in A God in Ruins winning the Costa Novel Award.

Kate Atkinson is one of my favourite writers and I wanted to think more highly of it than I did.

The devastating illness of a close family member meant that I acquired some more books, perhaps ones I wouldn't have explored otherwise. These included the three memoirs by Jennifer Worth that form the basis of the successful TV series Call the Midwife. Worth was a born storyteller and in the second book in particular, Shadows of the Workhouse, she had some really appalling stories to tell.

And in New Zealand I bought in a secondhand bookshop, Barbara Kingsolver's most famous book The Poisonwood Bible. I had previously read only The Lacuna, which a friend gave me. I didn't love TPB as much as the later book, mainly because I hated the minister so much and his insistence on making his family live in such circumstances in Africa.

But my two big discoveries of the year have both been by self-published authors. They have both been what we are now calling "Traditionally published" in the past but such is the state of the industry that these fine, accomplished and experienced writers can't get contracts when many a young début author can.

I am not going to waste time lamenting this but do want to introduce Frances Thomas and Ann Swinfen to a wider readership.

I first met Frances when she was going by the surname of Rathbone and we were both involved in looking at children's books from the perspective of the Women's movement in the early 70s. By the end of the decade she was publishing books for children and teens and has since written for adults too.

By the time she had the idea for the "Girls of Troy" trilogy, publishers were firmly of the opinion that historical fiction for teens didn't sell. So Frances published them herself. You would never be able to tell. These elegant paperbacks are well-written, carefully edited and - most importantly - ripping narratives that would entrance any (probably female) reader with an interest in classical history. And surely there are more of these than the Big Five publishers recognise. All those adults who love Hilary Mantel were teenagers once.

You can read all about "Girls of Troy" here.

The other big discovery was an adult novelist, Anne Swinfen. Unlike Frances, I have never met Ann but she is a member of my joint blog The History Girls, which is updated every day (unlike this one!) Here is a bit of her biography: "She read Classics and Mathematics at Oxford, where she married a fellow undergraduate, the historian David Swinfen. While bringing up their five children [she studied] for an MSc in Mathematics and a BA and PhD in English Literature."

Exhausting isn't it? Polymath doesn't begin to cover it.

I had read one of Ann's books The Testament of Mariam, the story of Jesus told retrospectively by his sister. This was the first of her historical novels that had to find a home under her self-publishing enterprise Shakenoak Press.

Then I saw that her three present day novels were available at a bargain price for Kindle and I laid them down for reading when I had time. That was last year and The Anniversary, The Travellers and A Running TIde kept me entranced for many days. They are not a trilogy, each having a different setting and cast of characters, but they are each in their different way little masterpieces.

I can't understand why Ann Swinfen isn't a household name.

By the time I had read all these and her historical novel, Flood,  set in the Fens in the time of the "other" Cromwell, Oliver, it was time for my next two Independent Reviews:

William Boyd's Sweet Caress and Sebastian Faulks' Where my Heart Used to Beat also struck me differently from other reviewers, with fewer liking the Boyd than I did and more rating the Faulks.

But then I went on a late holiday to a beach in Italy, taking my Kindle, and I discovered Elena Ferrante. "Have you been hiding in a hole for the last few years?" I hear you cry. Yes, of course I had heard of the reclusive Neapolitan writer and her book My Brilliant Friend. But I timed my reading of that and the two books that followed so that I finished the third just as the fourth and final book of the "Neapolitan Quartet" came out.

I practically inhaled these four books but not with unqualified admiration. I wrote about them for The History Girls here.  And then, perhaps unwisely, I read Ferrante's three "novels" that preceded the Quartet: Troubled Love, The Lost Daughter and Days of Abandonment. 

And that confirmed all that made me uneasy about the more famous sequence. The recurring motifs of difficult relations between mothers and daughters, sudden, irrational acts and bitter divorce are all laid down in the earlier books. If Ferrante is an autobiographical novelist, we can piece together her life from the pieces in the novels.

The writer I read most in 2015 was M.C. Beaton. I am neither proud nor ashamed of having read eleven of her Agatha Raisin detective stories just last year! Agatha is not a particularly likeable character: a heavy smoking, microwave cooking, adept liar with a penchant for tall handsome men (who doesn't), she is always getting herself into scrapes and often narrowly missing death at the hands of the murderers she is trying to catch.

But the novels - definitely "cosies" - are set in the Cotswolds and I know a lot of the places Agatha visits with one of her many male companions. They certainly have to have something to reel me in to compensate for the dreadful editing and sloppy authorial checking, in which Wednesdays follow Saturdays and the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is mistitled "of Minsk" and attributed to the wrong composer! (Prokofiev instead of Shostakovitch).

Once of my favourite books read last year was Robert Harris's A Gentleman and a Spy. Not a new book but such a skillful reconstruction or fictionalisation of the Dreyfus Affair, from the point of view of the officer who uncovered the injustice done to Dreyfus. Before, I had known of "the Affair" only through reading Proust and never really understood it.

The really big book event of last year was the progress of the independent publishing house I am setting up with my husband, The Greystones Press. We registered the company in October 2014 but there was so much to do that our first books won't be out till April this year. Here is the cover of my YA novel coming out on 23rd April:
My own published books of last year were: The Great Big Green Book (Frances Lincoln), illustrated by Ros Asquith and Queen Guinevere (Frances Lincoln), illustrated by Christina Balit. This last is a re-issue of Women of Camelot, now a "Classic"!

As for what I wrote in 2015, not as much as some years, owing to the family illness mentioned before, but I've been working on the story that forms the basis of an educational app for Time Travellers Tours and Tales. It is called In the Footsteps of Giants and is closely connected with my YA novel, David.

I also wrote a new picture book called Pirate Baby, of which more in due course. And guest-edited the summer issue of Mslexia, which was a lot of fun and a lot of work!

This year, as well as Shakespeare's Ghost, there will be The Great Big Body Book in August and The Ravenmaster's Boy in October.

I got a goodly haul of books for Christmas, including The Miniaturist and a Kate Granville. Maybe I'll still be reading them this time next year, as I have only just finished Dan Jones' The Hollow Crown. By a nice accident, this is now being serialised on Channel 5, as England's Bloody Crown.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Williams goes mainstream

I have been married for over forty years to a Charles Williams enthusiast. He's even the Treasurer of the Charles Williams Society. Till a few weeks ago, these statements might have been met by blank looks. Not any more.

But not only has Charles Williams made it, in however garbled a form, to our TV screens in an episode of Lewis, called "Magnum Opus;" a definitive biography has just come out.

Laurence Fox and Kevin Whateley look flummoxed, as well they might
Magnum Opus was pretty average hokum, featuring alchemy, tattoos and an alarmingly thin Honeysuckle Weeks. The murder victims were all members of a cult, apparently based on some ill-digested theories of Williams' theory of "co-inherence" - interpreted here as "taking someone else's guilt." The trouble was, the murderer didn't buy it and was picking them off one by one.

It was just odd to hear someone being talked about that has been part of my life, at one remove, for so long.

The real Charles Williams was known as "the third Inkling" and that is also the title of the new biography, a labour of love and over a decade, by Grevel Lindop.

So, as Sam Pepys, might have said, to Blackwell's last Thursday for the launch of the new book.

There could not be a more appropriate venue to launch a book about a man less known than his two fellow Inklings, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R.R. Tolkien, but who had a powerful presence at their meetings at the Eagle and Child. Lindop describes him as the "missing piece of the jigsaw" - a novelist, publisher, lecturer, poet, critic and, yes, magician.

Grevel Lindop

I've tried one novel, The Place of the Lion, which also turned up in Lewis, and it was not for me. But I'm going to give the poetry a go - "Taliesin through Logres" and "The Region of the Summer Stars" (I salute his ability with titles). And I shall definitely read The Third Inkling. The author made his subject sound fascinating.

I wasn't sure about the spanking with a magic sword kept in the cupboard at Williams' office at OUP, but maybe I mis-heard. It's the versatility that appeals to me. And Lindop is a bit of a Renaissance Man himself - retired Professor of Victorian Literature, expert on Thomas de Quincy, poet and accomplished Salsa dancer.

It clearly takes one to write about one.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Plenty of Ham - no let

Well, I've seen it now. Only the cinema relay of the National Theatre's production inevitably known as the "Cumberbatch Hamlet." But I'm glad I didn't scramble for tickets online last summer.

We've been here before. I don't know if the "celebrity Hamlet" began with David Tennant but it was when I became aware of it, of an audience full of teenage girls. I was there in the flesh that time but, paradoxically it was Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark in one sense, since DT had succumbed to back pain and Edward Bennett was substituting for him.

We bought the DVD.

By celebrity, I mean an actor who is better known at the time for his work on TV or film, not a famous stage actor, like Simon Russell Beale or Rory Kinnear. And it must be one with a huge female fanbase. Maybe the rot set in with Jude Law?

Both Benedict Cumberbatch and David Tennant are good actors - the latter was an excellent Berowne in the RSC's Love's Labours Lost, which I saw in Stratford. The problem is with Hamlet as star vehicle. Of course a good performance at the centre is crucial but you need a good ensemble too. In the "Tennant Hamlet" Penny Downie was the best Gertrude we had ever seen and Patrick Stewart won an award for his Claudius (though he was surprisingly discombobulated the night we saw it and fluffed his lines). Oliver Ford Davies was an excellent Polonius.

But that was directed by Gregory Doran, who knew what he was doing with the text. The teenage girls at the performance we attended didn't get their hero but they did get Shakespeare's Hamlet. The same can't be said for anyone who saw this new production.

Director Lyndsay Turner's attitude to the text seemed to be "good first effort - I could make it better." This tends to be an unwise approach to Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about the theatre. I found myself largely in agreement with Michael Billington's review in The Guardian. And if that makes us both old farts, so be it.

My beef is not so much with the performances as the direction and the cuts. Though while we're on performances, the best came from Ciaran Hinds as Claudius (I'm beginning to think that Claudius is an actor-proof role). The worst were Sian Brooke as Ophelia (I have never seen a good Ophelia, so maybe that part is the opposite of Claudius's?) and Karl Johnson as the Ghost, which he played a bit like Sylvester McCoy - I expected him to get some spoons out any minute.

The play, in Turner's version begins with Hamlet listening to LPs on an old record-player and looking at old photos. He misses his dad. So we lose the first battlements scene and with it Horatio's "the morn in russet mantle clad ..." speech, though other of his lines are relocated.

More importantly you lose the eerie feeling of bluff soldiers on watch being unmanned by the apparition of the king. The point that Hamlet is missing his dead father is made rather well by Shakespeare in the first court scene. That however is here a dinner party, at which no food is consumed, a very unconvincing setting for the giving of a diplomatic mission.

It is easy to say both "don't be such a purist!" and "the text is disputed anyway." I'm aware of the problems with the Hamlet text and famous cruxes (not Horcruxes, note) like solid/sullied, bad dreams/had dreams etc. BUT Turner's slash and burn attitude must come from a desire to make the action and emotion of the play to come across to a modern audience of young fans who love the sharp cheekboned one in Sherlock.

And here is an example of how this is quite unnecessarily. In Act One, scene iv, when his friend and the soldiers are trying to stop him following the Ghost, Hamlet says, "By Heaven I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!"

You can see Turner thinking "Oh dear, 'let' now means 'allow' - people won't understand." So the line is changed to "By Heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that stays me." (Why not go the whole hog and say "stops"? It is half-baked). But Hamlet shows by his actions what he means, so the text change doesn't help the innocent ear of someone seeing the play for the first time and it jars for those who know the play well.

It's a long play. You get the whole of it in Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film and that had to have an interval in the cinema. Most people accept that cuts will be necessary in a stage performance. We can live without the "eyrie of little eyasses" or "the vicious mole." And cutting the Polonius/Rinaldo subplot makes some sense, since it is never returned to, but it does rob Polonius of some of his devious character.

But these are some of the small, meaningless cuts: we lose "hugger-mugger," "chaste treasure," "unhouseled, disappointed, unannealed," "stockings foul and down-gyved" (too infra-dig for a sex god?), "vile phrase, " "caviare to the general, " "miching mallecho," "long purples," "Imperial Caesar dead and turned to clay," "get thee to my lady's chamber,"etc. etc.

Speeches are reassigned to different characters, as when Horatio says "something too much of this," "but not by [me]" is taken from Gertrude and given to Claudius. The part of Osric and the funny business with his hat is cut, there is no mention that young Hamlet is thirty years old, we are not told that the play-within-the-play is called The Mousetrap, the recorders Hamlet calls for after the play scene are represented mysteriously by a soprano saxophone and, worst of all for me, the Prince says "except my life" only twice, not three times.

Soliloquies are blessedly not cut but they are moved around. I say again, that Bill Shakespeare knew a thing or two about how to structure a play. What makes Lyndsay Turner so sure she can do it better? She can't.

It's lovely that young people are drawn in to see a Shakespeare play because one of their heroes is in it. They do deserve not to be patronised though and be given the real thing. As Benedict Cumberbatch could have done had he been better directed. 

Sunday, 13 September 2015

An appreciation of Terry Pratchett

Since the publication of The Shepherd's Crown, we have seen adulatory reviews like A.S. Byatt's, ill-informed denigration like Jonathan Jones's and spirited rebuttals like this one by Sam Jordison. Since I was out of the country for most of this, I wanted to write my own quiet appreciation of Terry Pratchett, a sort of emotion recollected in tranquility, reflecting on his long literary life, sadly not matched by his actual years.

His death earlier this year came as a profound shock to his fans, among whom I count myself, even though they/we were all too well aware of his cruel illness. It was always going to be too soon. Perhaps that is why there is such thin-skinned sensitivity to attacks like Jonathan Jones's spiteful little piece, dubbing the novels "potboilers," without having read them.

Having seen the covers (which I will admit put me off too) and flicked through a few pages in a bookshop, he dismisses them all as trash, not worth bothering with. (In a follow-up piece, he remedied this by reading Small Gods, but said his idea of a great literary masterpiece was - by implication - Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. This doesn't need a comment!)

I will not make any case here for TP as a writer of great literature; I will simply try to explain why I love and re-read the best of the Discworld novels and why I find some of his characters indispensable. To backtrack a bit, I was introduced to the Discworld by my oldest daughter when she was in her early teens, so some twenty-five years ago. It that even possible?

I didn't find the first two - The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic - particularly addictive and I might have written them off as another of my daughter's SF and fantasy enthusiasms I couldn't really share. And I was constantly annoyed by the spelling of Sourcery as it kept appearing in the Bookseller's bestseller lists. 

So when did my TP habit kick in and become unkickable? Being a completist, I did read them in the right order so was it around  Equal Rites (3) or Mort (4) that I suddenly got it? I even read Sourcery (5). I have always loved the three witches (Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade) and it is a matter of some pride that all three of my daughters regarded me as a mixture of Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax, long before I had grandmother status IRL.

 © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons
I met Terry on several occasions and must admit I was a bit disappointed the first time. But I think he mellowed and came closer to the authorial personality shown in his books. Or perhaps I became less demanding of a hero. Certainly what I admire most in his writing is his humanity and generosity and would like to think those must have been the major characteristics of the man.

That and his inventiveness and prodigality - all qualities I find and admire in Dickens. And of course the humour. But also the rage. Neil Gaiman was so right to say that TP was not a jolly elf. There was a fury against the injustices and cruelties of the world that underlies so much of the humour and inventon. Fury about the abuse of religion (Small Gods), about racial prejudice (Carpe Jugulum, Thud!). I wish he were here to write about the current refugee crisis.

A fan without being fanatical, I always waited for the paperbacks, except for when his publishers sent me early review copies of the hardbacks - on two or three occasions even bound proofs. I remember a particularly glorious Sunday morning one autumn, realising I had an extra hour in bed to read the latest TP sent to me (Hogfather).

The Unseen University with its wizards and orang-utan Librarian, the Witches, the City Watch, the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, etc. etc. are all part of a fully-imagined world, as the "extras" like maps and other addenda attest.

Of course there were flaws. In Vimes, as later with Granny Weatherwax and Tiffany Aching, you felt an authorial over-attachment or identification, a "cannot fail" aura. That must make the opening of The Shepherd's Crown all the more poignant.

As death came closer to Terry Pratchett, I hoped that it would be like his own remarkable creation Death. the upper case talking, scythe-wielding skeleton that made mortality palatable, just as  TP's books made life more enjoyable.

I don't feel grief, as so many of my friends do, that there will be no more Discworld novels. It was always going to be a finite number, if you think about it. As literary innings go, TP the writer had a very good score. I just wish Terry the man were still not out.

My favourite Discworld Novels*

Guards! Guards!
Reaper Man
Witches Abroad

* I am not so keen on the Tiffany Aching books aimed at younger people so have chosen just from the adult canon.

My Favourite Discworld characters

Sam Vimes
Lord Vetinari
All three Witches
Mustrum Ridcully
Windle Poons
Cut-me-own-throat Dibbler
Leonard of Quirm
Captain Carrot

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Outcaste by Ellen Renner

Those of us who have been waiting eagerly for the sequel to Ellen Renner's Tribute, about Zara the Archmage's daughter, have  had our patience rewarded. Initially scheduled for publication in August last year, Outcaste, published by Hot Key, was delayed while Ellen wrote four books for OUP. But here it is at last.

Zara has escaped her home city of Asphodel and is travelling with the Knowledge Seekers to the Maker home city of Genst (but this summary will not help you if you haven't read Tribute!) What you need to know is that she is one of a group of Rebels who hope to find an alliance with the Makers against the tyranny of Zara's father, the Archmage Benedict.

She has fallen for Aidan, the Maker her father imprisoned and whom she helped to rescue and their connection survives all through the long and dangerous journey they are both on.

So far, so according to many, many love stories in fantasy novels. But here's where it all changes. Zara discovers that Aidan's culture is very backward when it comes to attitudes towards women. And what is worse, he is not immune to those views himself.

But there are even more horrific secrets to be discovered in the Maker city and Zara is driven back to Asphodel to confront her father. The story isn't over yet. Please don't make us wait too long for the resolution, Ellen Renner!

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Out with the old, in with the new

Off to BAFTA this week for the announcement of the new Children's Laureate, the ninth, who will bear the crown for the next two years. The eighth Laureate, Malorie Blackman, has been such an outstanding star, that I really did wonder who could possibly follow her. Not only has she involved many more teenagers in reading through her YALC initiative, she has travelled the length and breadth of the country to talk to anyone and everyone about the importance of books and reading. She even came to be the "outside speaker" at the writers' conference I was organising with a friend in Peterborough in 2014:
And this picture shows you another reason that she was so popular: everything was done with such good humour and joy.

So, who was going to be brave (mad?) enough to take on that mantle? I had heard rumours - there are always murmurs. "It must be a man" (after two women in a row) , "It should be an illustrator," "It is definitely going to be X," "No, no, I know for a fact that it's Y."

Well in the event it was both the first but neither X nor Y. And my heart lifted. If there is anyone in the children's book world who can live up to his predecessor, it's our new Laureate Chris Riddell.

 It has been a very popular choice for the following reasons:

• Reach - Chris's picture book illustrations are legendary and have won him prizes (Two Kate Greenaway medals so far). His interpretations of writing by Neil Gaiman find an older audience as do his own Goth Girl books (winner of the Costa). But his political cartoons, for the Observer and New Statesman, have introduced his wit and acute observations to adults too. People are going to know who this Laureate is.

• Speed - Chris is a fast worker. He has pledged and is already fulfilling that pledge to draw at least one picture a day of his laureateship, making a unique visual journal of his years in office. He's doing it in a beautiful book given him by his mother. My only worry is that Chris's mum should have made it a bigger book.

• Humanity - it shines out of all his work: from the gentle humour to the acerbic lampoons. This is a man with his heart in the right place.

• Quality - not only is he a superb natural artist, who is perfecting hs craft by using it all the time; he is drawn to quality in the projects he takes on or initiates (I say nothing of his collaboration with Russell Brand, because I haven't read The Pied Piper of Hamelin).*

• Modesty - You see in the colour picture above his version of himself as as pudgy everyman with a Pooterish air but the photos tell a different story. He is equally unassuming about his work.

The great and the good - and a few of the bad - were gathered to applaud the outgoing laureate (for so long she had to stop us) and celebrate the new. The pictures below are brought to you by a combination of Nicolette Jones and myself (after a phone malfunction) and give a flavour of the party.

Patrick Ness and Julia Eccleshare

Elissa Elwick, Liz Pichon, Sarah Macintyre, Mary Hoffman and a photo-bomber

Our new Laureate

Chris as Superhero The Doodler

Chris's cartoon of Malorie Blackman
* I really can't be modest myself about the fact that Chris has illustrated two of my books. In fact Beware, Princess! (1986) might just have been his first professional commission for a trade book. Here is the dragon from that book, now displayed on the wall of my study.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Egypt's answer to Montmartre *

It can be hard reading and reviewing books by someone you know. My reputation is as a pretty rigorous critic and this can come into conflict with warm feelings for a writer.

I heard a lot about Cleo in Bologna, not just from its agent Sophie Hicks but also from its author, my travelling companion and good friend Lucy Coats. And I'd already been seduced by that gorgeous cover by Thy Bui.

But after a few pages, if it's a good book, you forget all that and just give in to the power of the story. And Cleo is a very good book indeed. For a start it's a brilliant premise, the "before they were famous" one. Young Cleo doesn't know she's going to become the "serpent of old Nile." She doesn't know she'll be celebrated by a sixteenth century playwright and bodied forth by Helen Mirren, Glenda Jackson, Harriet Walter. Least of all that she'll be portrayed by the black eye-linered siren Elizabeth Taylor in an iconic movie on the 1960s.

No, none of that. She's just a young girl, watching her mother die and suspecting her half-sisters, Berenice and Tryphena, of the murder. She has one ally, her slave Charmion [sic], who is so much more than a servant. The two girls are friends and Charm, as she is known to Cleo, finds a way to get them both out of the court which Cleo's father, the Pharaoh, has abandoned. And just in time, since the evil half-sisters enjoy feeding enemies and rivals to their crocodiles. Piece by piece.

Four years later, Cleo and Charm return to this dangerous place, with a mission to find and rescue an Ancient Egyptian McGuffin, the captured secret that is causing the goddess Isis' power to wane. For Cleo is the chosen servant of Isis, marked out for this destiny from birth.

And there is a secret ally in the court, who does not want the death-worshipping Berenice and Tryphena on the double throne of Egypt. Khai works in the Great Library and Cleo has felt something for him since she was little because of a shared love of learning and a thirst for knowledge. But on her return she finds him in the new role of toy boy to Tryphena.

Together the three young people, Cleo, Charm and Khai, with the help of a few other allies, work to overthrow the half-sisters and restore Isis' power but there and dangers along the way and several very gruesome deaths.

(Of course this is all invention: no-one knows anything about Cleopatra's early life, before Caesar, before Mark Antony and long before the fatal asp.) 

One of the things I really enjoyed about Cleo was the rich sense of actually being in Ancient Egypt. Lucy Coats' thorough research underpins a seemingly effortless recreation of the smells, sights and sounds of Alexandria and the banks of the Nile, still then teeming with crocodiles and hippos. And all this is achieved without recourse to any faux-ancient language.

The second book, Cleo: Chosen, will follow soon and we'll get the end of the adventure, which takes Cleo to Rome, presumably still unknowing what part the Eternal City will play in her future. I will be waiting as eagerly as a hungry crocodile.

Creative Commons - Eslam17

* The seductive rhyme from Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds" musical Salad Days, whose title is of course also a quotation from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra: "My salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood...."