Sunday, 20 July 2014

Picture books by Mary Hoffman

I have just acquired a new grandchild, a boy, and at his mother's Baby Shower a few weeks ago (itself an innovation since my day) He was given many items featuring giraffes. Jungle animals have always been popular with parents of small children but it has taken awhile for giraffes to make it into pole position above pandas and elephants and lions. Still, I am now told that all new people need a "Sophie the Giraffe," who even has her own website.


This hard plastic teether - charming as it is - is a long way from the long-eyelashed heroine of the new picture book by Dianne Hofmeyr and Jane Ray. Zeraffa was a real historical character, a present from Egypt to France, who made the long journey to Paris in 1827.

Now I may well be prejudiced because this book is written, illustrated and edited by three of my favourite people! Dianne until very recently graced the History Girls' blog with her fabulous photo-essays; Jane Ray is an old friend, with whom I've had the great fortune to publish to publish two books and Janetta Otter-Barry is not only my first and longest-serving picture book editor but a valued friend.

So that caveat aside, I can tell you that this is a gorgeous book. Both women have a real sympathy for and appreciation of the natural world and it shines from every line of text and glowing illustration. Zeraffa is accompanied by Atir, a boy who goes with her every step of the way from her strange journey from the plains of Africa to the boulevards of Paris. First they sail down the Nile to the Mediterranean and then catch a bigger boat for Marseilles. But then how to travel the 550 miles to the capital?

In the end, there is only one way. But once Zeraffa is there, in her own specially-built house, Paris goes giraffe-mad and fashionable ladies glue false eyelashes to their own in an attempt to mimic her beauty. Zeraffa lives out her days in comfort and is a treasured member of the King of France's collection - unlike poor Marius of Copenhagen Zoo.

A completely different but equally lovely title published by Janetta Otter-Barry books, takes a gentle look at what makes a real boy. Maybe my grandson will need this as much as he does giraffes. Raffi is teased because he loves to knit and sew and doesn't like rough playground games and football. "Mum, is there such a thing as a tomgirl?" he asks.

I know a little boy like Raffi, who loves to make things and whose favourite colour is pink - he has lots of girls as friends and would really like a Barbie doll. But even Primary school culture is damning of such "different" individuals. He's a bit old for picture books now, but I'll give this to him anyway.



Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Endings, Beginnings and a one-off

The Carnegie Medal has just been awarded to Kevin Brooks for The Bunker Diary, prompting criticism of YA books which are bleak or have unhappy endings. I haven't read the winning book so will reserve judgment but I HAVE been reading lots of YA over the last few months while I've been away from here and am now going to bring you the best of them.

To begin: two final books, one in a series and one in a "cycle."


Icefall is the fourth and last book in Gillian Philip's remarkable "Rebel Angel" series that began with Firebrand and introduced us to the raw violence and fierce loyalty of Seth McGregor. I hardly like to mention that Seth is, technically, what we would call a Fairy. He and his clan come from the other side of the Veil though they live for many years among mortals.

I was appalled by the killing off of an important character in the second book, Bloodstone, but the series recovered from it and found its form again in Wolfsbane. Now that I've read Icefall, I really need to go back to the beginning and am envious of new readers who can race through all four. It's something I would have done as a teenager.

But having had large gaps in between, I was grateful for the cast list at the beginning to refresh my memory of the complicated web of relationships on both sides of the Veil. The main adversary of Seth and his clan is the villainous Kate NicNiven, Queen of one side and desiring power on the other. In order to reach victory their creator puts our hero and us through the wringer and there were points where I wanted to cry out "Nooooooh!" with all the fervour of  Luke Skywalker seeing Obi-Wan Kenobi killed by Darth Vader or Frodo witnessing Gandalf falling with the Balrog.

It's an impossible book to review without giving Spoilers so I will only say that fans will not be disappointed, though they will be tormented and exhausted by the end.






There's an interesting story behind the third book in Miriam Halahmy's "Hayling Island Cycle." The first two books, Hidden and Illegal, were published by Meadowside, which ceased to exist before the last book, Stuffed, came out. But it had already been written, so imagine how ghastly this would have been for the author. Sadly, it is all too common a tale now.

But Miriam managed to get back the rights to the first two titles and all three are now available through Albury Books in perfectly matching jackets. Phew! All this before one can get to content, although of course the teenage reader will neither know nor care.

What makes this a cycle rather than a series is that the main characters change and someone who has been a minor figure in one book takes a lead role in another - an elegant way of linking books. In this one fifteen-year-old Jess and seventeen-year-old Ryan are attracted to each other but each has a shameful secret and each finds life completely changed by one thing.

In Jess's case it's her father's loss of job and income and the lies he tells to cover up his bankruptcy that precipitate her into a completely different way of life. For Ryan unprotected sex while drunk leads to a fairly obvious outcome with a girl he scarcely knows, just as he is falling for Jess. Both have a lot of growing up to do in a short time, misunderstandings to unravel and responsibilities to face up to.

Halahmy knows Hayling Island well and it has become an extra character in the books not just a setting for them. Another thing that links them is the theme of trust - who can be trusted? Who deserves trust and who abuses it? Jess and Ryan struggle their way back to trusting each other after the devastating turns their lives separately take. It seems we can trust this author.


This is different again, a historical novel of a most unusual kind, set at the time of the American Civil War and featuring a young African American slave girl, Charley. She is freed at the end of the War but life is still so dangerous and uncertain after the killing of the only two parent-figures she knows that Charley has to adopt a disguise.



She pulls on a dead man's clothes and joins the army, rising through the ranks through her skills at shooting. It's a really tough story and the reader must not get attached to any person or animal that Charley becomes fond of. I wasn't a hundred percent convinced by how she hides her gender by washing out menstrual cloths - how would she dry them unnoticed? - but Landman pulls off her deception through sheer force of narrative.


Charley's ultimate fate is most moving and poignant. And Tanya Landman has now joined The History Girls!



This fourth book is the first in a fantasy sequence; I'm not sure how many books there will be. I have followed Ellen Renner's career with interest since she wrote Castle of Shadows and City of Thieves, a series left unfinished by Orchard. Renner has now gone to Hot Key, who published Tribute earlier this year and will bring out the sequel, Outcaste, next year.

It's traditional High Fantasy for young adults with no vampires or zombies but plenty of magic. The interesting thing is that the heroine, Zara, on her way to becoming a powerful mage, hates her father Benedict - with very good reason. He has killed two people she loved, or at least that is what she believes. He is more powerful than her and yet she must outwit him and save the imprisoned hostage from the other side of the Wall, who is to be used as bait in Benedict's schemes.

It involves her making alliances with the Thieves' Guild and the Knowledge-Seekers but they are not sure if they can trust the daughter of the tyrant Arch-Mage. It's full of thrilling scenes and moments of extreme jeopardy for Zara and I can't wait to read book two.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Friendship and Fresco-bombing in Florence

I had only a week at home before setting of to Italy again, this time to possibly my favourite city: Florence. I have been visiting this treasure-house of art and much else since my first summer holiday from university. It was love at almost first sight and since that formative occasion I have been back more times than I can count - well over thirty, including two separate months when I have lived there.

Last year I was actually paid to do it when Julie Foster Hedlund invited me to teach on her first ever Writer's Renaissance - a creative writing course focussing on sense of place and using all the senses. WR includes field trips, hands-on writing tasks and many wonderful meals and visits to the city's gelaterie. So I jumped at the chance to do it again this year, especially as this year I had the chance to stay first with my old Florentine friend.

My first three nights were in an apartment in the San Gervasio area of the city, spending the day sight-seeing and researching my planned field trip during the day and joining my friend upstairs from late afternoon onwards for tea and then dinner.

My first day was spent divided between culture and shopping - the perfect mix. I went to the San Marco convent to check on my memories of the Fra Angelico frescoes in the upstairs cells and one in particular - the Noli me Tangere - which I have written about twice in novels.

And then to the San Lorenzo market, where I had my once-every-two years commission to buy two pairs of Nicola Benson shoes for my husband from his favourite shop. The three men there all know me now! Then I hit the stalls, buying two pairs of gloves and a turquoise handbag for me and presents for other people.

I had arranged to meet Julie after lunch, who was also in the city early, making arrangements to welcome her students. The hotel which is the WR base is the stunning Antica Torre Tornabuoni, with its two roof terraces, so that was a rendezvous we both knew and had the added advantage that I could leave two heavy pairs of men's shoes there till I moved in on Monday.

After tea and a planning session, we went to watch marbled paper being made, which I shall write about over on The History Girls on 1st May.

I discovered there was going to be a half marathon run in Florence next day, so took the number 7 bus out to Fiesole instead of into the city. I'd hoped to see the newly excavated Etruscan road there but the way into it was locked on a Sunday and there was a beguiling flea-market all over the square on top of it.

So I just walked up to the monastery at the top, catching the wonderful view halfway. This was the day the WR students arrived but I didn't meet them till Monday, when I said goodbye to my friend after three evenings of intense discussion (in Italian) about children's books, and moved into Antica Torre Tornabuoni.

Julie and my fellow tutor Sarah Towle had been on a demanding walking tour relating to Dante with the students but we met up for lunch and more planning. Having been chilly all weekend, Florence had turned hot and sunny that day.

It wasn't till that evening that I met our students - three from the US and two from Australia - over aperitifs in the gazebo. We heard what Dante had inspired them to write, following some prompts from Julie, then walked to Del Porcellino, a restaurant just round the corner from the Mercato Nuovo where this much-photographed bronze of a wild boar gets its nose rubbed for luck by hundreds of hands every day.


That's a bit of typical Florentine humour, by the way, to describe a massive wild boar as "the piglet." The original Roman statue is in the Uffizi.

By the end of a large meal and plenty of wine the group was beginning to gel. For all of them it was their first time in Florence and the stimulus was intense.

Tuesday was "Michelangelo Day," started off by Julie and continued by me. After a session in the gazebo, we set off to the Accademia to see David, about whom I have written a novel. As last year, searching questions were asked about the young man's anatomy and answered frankly by me, causing a scandal with one of the official guides.



The afternoons are free so Sarah and I, who are hatching various writerly and publishing plots, together, went off the see the Medici chapels. Daunted by the long queue, we went for an early lunch + more plotting + caffeine, which had been sadly missing from the morning. By the time we were done, there was no queue and we had the place to ourselves. Alas the public are no longer allowed to get into the "secret room" where Michelangelo hid under the New Sacristy during a visit to the city when the de' Medici had been restored to power, but we saw where it was and watched a DVD showing the drawings he made on the plaster while in hiding.

Wednesday was "my" day, when I got to take the WR students on a field trip. I had chosen San Marco partly because of having written about it in two different ways and partly because it is one of my favourite places in the city. But you never know how it will strike someone seeing it for the first time. (Last year I took the first group of students to see the Masaccios in the Brancacci Chapel).

I needn't have worried:they were all blown away. First by the massive Annunciation at the top of the stairs and then by the cell paintings, especially my favourite Noli me Tangere. Gradually they realised that St. Dominic the founder of the Order at San Marco, whose adherents included Savonarola and Michelangelo's older brother as well as Fra Angelico, found his way into almost every painting.

Here is another version of the Annunciation from one of the cells and you can see that the Saint has "fresco-bombed" the subject.

We left the students there - some stayed till lunch - while Julie and I went for a much-needed caffeine + gelato hit. We all re-grouped for lunch at Nuti's and then I introduced one student to the joys of the market, where she bought three handbags ( her score by the end of her trip reached eight!).

And then it was already the last night and our "Faculty dinner" which Julie, Sarah and I had at I Quattro Leoni. It was another enriching experience for all concerned and, as last year, will take a long time before all the experiences are fully absorbed and re-emerge in the students' writing.

I have already been invited back to teach next year; just let anyone try to stop me.

3 lionesses at the 4 Lions - Faculty dinner with Julie Foster Hedlund and Sarah Towle


Saturday, 12 April 2014

Bologna Book Fair 2014


Disgracefully late, I am bringing you my account of this year's Bologna Book Fair. I was reporting for Book Brunch and Armadillo, which kept me taking notes fairly busily and only a week after getting back had to fly to Florence (I know, I know) for another teaching gig. I will try to write that up later for you.

It was a very sociable Bologna for me since I travelled not only with Lucy Coats, for the third year in a row but also my daughter, Rhiannon Lassiter, who last came with me in 2011, and this year's "Fair Virgin," Frances Hardinge.

Lucy Coats


Rhiannon Lassiter and Frances Hardinge with a bee
As well as all the agents and publishers (no authors) we found at Heathrow, we bumped into old friend Lawrence Schimel on the bus from Bologna Airport to our hotel. Rhiannon and I first met Lawrence at Bologna in 2003 when we were compiling our fastest ever book, the anthology Lines in the Sand (Frances Lincoln 2003). We included one of his terrifying, excellent poems looking at the Shoah through a fairytale lens; that was his Hansel and Gretel, with a very different kind of oven at the end. Now he has published a small volume of poems called Fairy Tales for Writers, which he gave us:

Like the prince supplicating
from the base of the tower for Rapunzel
to let down her hair, the editor calls her
to ask for the rest of the manuscript.

After a quick dip into the exhilarating social melee of the Random House party - full of prosecco and agents - the four of us went to our "usual" restaurant, the Trattoria del Rosso, and braced ourselves for day one of the Fair.

As I've often said, it's the serendipitous encounters in the aisles that make the Fair, as much as the appointments with agents, Rights managers and editors. One of our first was with David Fickling, newly independent and without his own stand. He told us about so many new books coming out - including Jon Walter's refugee story, Close to the Wind, Sarah MacIntyre's Jampires and the delicious-sounding Bumps and Babies anthology - that it's hard to remember that DFB is such a small operation. "We're not having a launch, just carrying on producing the best books," says David, buoyant as ever.

A highlight of the day was the launch of Sarah Towle's Time Traveler Tours and Tales at the SCBWI stand. (= Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators but that's such a  mouthful, everyone calls it Scoobie!).

Sarah Towle Photo: Candy Gourlay
Sarah, who is producing collaborative narrative non-fiction, says "there's a format for every user and for every time of day," from smartphone Apps to iBooks on tablets to paper books and Curriculum Guides for teachers. She was way ahead of her time producing Beware Madame la Guillotine as an App in 2012 1nd is still a pioneer in introducing Digital Technology into Education programmes.

After exploring our way round the Fair, all four of us went to different dinners. Mine was with my Italian publishers, Lo Stampatello, two women called Maria Silvia and Francesca. They have published The Great Big Book of Families and The Great Big Book of Feelings already and this autumn will bring out Welcome to the Family, all illustrated by the marvellous Ros Asquith and published here by Frances Lincoln.


I had a double reason to visit Barrington Stoke next day, since I have two books coming out with them this summer and I also always want to know what they have coming out. In this case new titles by Charlie Higson, Mike Rosen, Cornelia Funke, Eoin Colfer and Alexander McCall Smith - quite a roll call! And it doesn't end there: Sally Nicholls, Caroline Lawrence, David Almond, Lee Weatherly and Mary Hooper have all been writing for their 8-12 list.

After a lunch with Janetta Otter-Barry and new MD David Inman of Frances Lincoln, the first part of the afternoon was spent visiting agents, such as Jodie Hodges of United Agents, Fiona Kenshole of Transatlantic (Canada) and Jo Unwin, who is currently working in association with Rogers, Coleridge and White.

Jodie's clients Laura Dockrill and Emma Carroll are doing really well, with their Darcy Burdock titles and The Girl who Walked on Air. Fiona, who used to work for many British publishers, is now based in the US, working for a Canadian agency, with clients in Hong Kong and Mumbai - a very modern set-up.

Jo Unwin, who has returned to agenting after a brief foray into editing for Random House, was presenting Claire Wilson's list while Claire was on maternity leave. She told me that Half Bad - last year's "Book of the Fair" - had made the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling rights for a début author, whether for adults or children.

My last stand visit of the day, before the Barrington Stoke Prosecco party, was to HarperCollins. There had been an announcement the day before that their star illustrator Oliver Jeffers was going to collaborate with Eoin Colfer on a picture book called Imaginary Fred. Jeffers was actually on the stand; they had been taking him out to dinner with his foreign publishers the night before, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his first book with them.

Jeffers is also producing a book called Once Upon an Alphabet, with a short story for every letter. Other titles to look forward to are Rob Biddulph's début, Blown Away, about the unexpected journey of a stylised - and stylish - penguin and new books from Judith Kerr and Emma Chichester Clark.

During the day it had been announced that Quercus had been sold to Hodder so it was going to be interesting meeting Roisin Heycock and Emma Thawley for drinks that night. Although Quercus had been up for sale for some time Roisin as publisher and Emma as Rights Director have not let the grass grow under their feet. They had been giving out red tote bags at the stand celebrating ten years of Quercus books and were enthusiastic about two new books: Anna McKerrow's YA novel Crow Moon, about a reluctant boy witch and Georgia Pritchett's funny Middle Grade title, The Big Kerfuffle.



And so we had reached the last day (for us) of the Fair, with only the morning before lunch and the journey back to the airport. For me, it began with meeting Nirmal Sandhu, the Rights Director at Hachette, who showed me my favourite picture book of the Fair: The Queen's Hat by Steve Antony, a beautifully designed and executed tale of a flyaway titfer chased by lovely, stylised multiple guardsmen!

Clare Somerville, the Deputy Managing Director, joined us to talk about Orchard's the World of Norm series by Jonathan Meres, a good example of the funny Middle Grade series titles that - since Jeff Kinney's wildly successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid - is pure Rights gold.

There are quieter books coming too like Heartsong, an Orchard collaboration between Kevin Crossley-Holland and Jane Ray telling the story of one of Viva;di's orphans, and The Colour Thief by Andrew Fusek Peters and Karin Littlewood, about a parent's depression.

Then it was off to Hot Key for coffee from the integral café on their stand and a meeting with Kate Manning, their Rights director. We talked about a book with possibly the most stunning cover at the Fair, the novel Boy with a Tiger's Heart by Linda Coggin. Kate doesn't think Fantasy is over, as so many pundits were trying to convince us. They have just published Trubute by Ellen Renner, the first in a series about Mages and Knowledge Seekers, which is pure traditional fantasy material.

Frances Lincoln has a very strong and varied autumn list and I don't just say that because I had a book on it! Elizabeth Hammill's Over the Hills and Far Away is a collection of nursery rhymes from round the world, with seventy-seven equally international illustrators. All royalties go to Seven Stories in Newcastle, which Hammill helped to found.

I loved Wendy Meddour's How the Library (not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel, a "fractured" fairy tale. The heroine's rampant locks portrayed by new illustrator Rebecca Ashdown are a bit reminiscent of Wendy's own impressive curls.

And so to my last meeting, with scout JohnMcLay, who thought that there had been a resurgence of Middle Grade fictuon in the UK, all in the area of humour or magic and invention. "Up till now we've been a net importer of US Middle Grade books but now we are producing more of our own." UK YA has also struggled to find overseas publishers but the many creative writing programmes, such as those at Birkbeck, UEA and Bath were producing some fine writers.

A book John had particularly liked at the Fair was The Tapper Twins go to War by Geoff Rodkey, which Little Brown was selling strongly in several territories. He had identified a few "mini-trends" - books about suicide, like Jennifer Niven's The Bright Places being published by Random House US - had had been pitched at least four.

Witches are still strong both in YA and Middle Grade but also realistic stories about illness and car crashes, "love stories with obstacles."  He told us about Endgame by James Frey, which is a bit like Kit Williams' Masquerade. But this time it's a multimedia event with film rights bought by Fox and a book series with HarperCollins, not to mention videos on YouTube.

And so home to recover, to write up my articles in bed with a streaming cold, not helped by the recycled air in the plane. A good solid Fair, not as hectic as some but I came away with the feeing that children's books in the UK were doing OK

Inflatable Barbamama and family - just one of the sort of things you find at the Fair
NB: I have no report on the London Book Fair this year, because they changed the date and it clashed with my teaching commitment in Florence. I hope this won't happen in 2015.












Friday, 7 March 2014

Teri Terry's trilogy by Mary Hoffman






Slated has been one of the most successful UK debuts I can remember. It won nine regional book awards and was on numerous long- and shortlists. These are the awards given by the actual readers and all the more valuable for that. Librarians are great and they put books into eager readers' hands but the praise from readers is special.

The concept was, like all the best ones, simple. In a future Britain, still recogniseable fifty years on, teenagers who have been convicted of crimes are "slated," that is their memories are wiped and they start again in a new family with no recollection of their past.

But Kyla does remember things, even though she ought not to. She remembers a terrorist attack on a coach full of students who went to the school she now attends. She remembers how to draw, even with her left hand, when she is supposed to be right-handed.

We find out why that is in the first sequel, Fractured.

(The books' look has done them a lot of favours with teenage girl readers)


I asked Teri Terry if she had always known it would be a trilogy and she said, "It was originally a standalone, but it became apparent quite early on in writing it that the story wasn’t going to fit in one book. The ending is much as envisioned, though it did evolve - as they do!"



By the ending, Teri is talking about the third book and I mustn't jump the gun. The society she describes is itself fractured, riven by the Lorders (Law + Order) who monitor people's behaviour and spoken views in a terrifyingly Stalinist way, and the AGT (Anti-Government Terrorists) who we presume to be the good guys.


Kyla remembers more and more about her life before she was Slated but was it just one life?



At the beginning of Shattered, she has yet another identity and I realise how very hard it is to review or describe these books without plot spoilers!


I did ask Teri about her world-building, because although the books are set fifty years in the future, there are still schools, buses, cars and trains. She said, "Because of events in the back history of the novels – the civil unrest and riots, the isolation - the UK hasn’t evolved as much as you might expect in forty years. Though there certainly is technology beyond what is available to us now, particularly noticeable in Shattered. That is the explanation, but yes: it was a conscious choice to have it this way. I wanted it to be a recognizable world, that readers could relate to – to give them that this could really happen sort of feeling."


Good answer.


I can tell you that the resolution, when it comes, after very tense and heart-thumping reversals, is thoroughly satisfying, even though things don't work out for every character as you might expect. Kyla's original identity is surprising.

"Identity is certainly a big part of it: how can you know who you are or who you want to be, if you don’t know who you were? Another big thing to me is the nature-nurture debate, and the influence views on this can have on punishment and rehabilitation of violent criminals. I was a lawyer years ago, in Canada, and this has always been an obsession of mine. Also the balance of rights and freedoms in society: are any actions justified in pursuit of freedom? Is a group fighting for freedom defined by their objectives, or by their methods?"


I asked Teri about Kyla's twin skills: she is a brilliant artist and an athletic runner. This is her reply: "The best I can manage with art is stick figures! Though I’ve always been fascinated with people who can do artistic things, probably because I completely can’t, and this often creeps into things I write. And years ago I used to run and be kind of a gym junkie, so I totally get the exercising to the point of exhaustion to get a buzz from endorphins. Though not recently."


Teri Terry
The whole trilogy had for me a very fresh and compelling premise, well executed. I'm not surprised it has been so popular and I'll certainly keep an eye out for anything else by this writer.






Sunday, 2 March 2014

The SAS were at it again

Orton Hall in the sunshine

This is Orton Hall, near Peterborough, now a hotel with a swimming pool and spa. I spent last weekend there with 39 other children's writers. The February conference of the Scattered Authors Society was held there for the third time in a row - the only difference being that this year I was one of the organisers. Anne Rooney and I had been putting it together for months and called it Who Dares Writes.

It's hard to write about what went on because of the first rule of the conference: "What happens in Peterborough stays in Peterborough." But a little boasting might be in order and some veiled allusions.

We had been lucky enough to secure Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman as our outside speaker and her warmth intelligence and humour kept everyone spellbound.

Picture credit: Jo Cotterill
 We were also lucky with the weather. As always the sun shone for us and the snowdrops bloomed:

Two of our delegates have already blogged about the conference, much more speedily than me:
Liz Kessler and Abie Longstaff

They made lists of what they had learned and there are no embargoes on knowing that most children's writers have black swimming costumes or the inadvisability of looking up "beaver" on the Internet.

Our fellow practitioners advised on mind-mapping, comedic tropes, writing a synopsis, avoiding "saggy middle," napping, writing "gritty fiction," the variety of ways in which in which people got started in publishing.

And we heard, as usual, some horror stories (ssh!). And some remarkable pieces of good fortune. We saw pictures of several people's writing "rooms." There was and Earnings and Yearnings survey miraculously analysed in a  few hours by Anne Rooney. I don't think I am revealing any trade secrets by saying that the lowest advance ever offered to a Scattered Author was exactly zero.

Apart from that, all I can tell you is that the snowdrops were nice!







Sunday, 9 February 2014

New Tricks

The Guardian Offices, London Photo credit Bryantbob
This is where I spent most of yesterday - at the offices of the Guardian newspaper in King's Place, near King's Cross Station. In recent years the newspaper has been running hugely successful Masterclasses in Writing. This weekend was devoted to Writing for Children, the Saturday run by writer Lucy Coats and the Sunday by publisher Nosy Crow.

And it just so happened that Lucy's most recent picture book, Captain Beastlie's Pirate Party, had just been published by Nosy Crow.

Having been an editor and a bookseller before crossing over to the dark side, there isn't much that Lucy doesn't know about the art - and business - of writing for children. Saturday was a packed day of handouts, exercises and PowerPoints for fifteen keen participants and I'd been asked along to give a session on World-Building as part of the Setting aspect of storytelling.

Another good friend, Michelle Lovric, gave a presentation on how her childhood obsessions found their way into her writing.

I've had over a hundred books published for children and teenagers and I was one of the tutors so I was there to teach, right?

But the funny thing was I came away thinking about how much I had learned - not how much I had conveyed. It really isn't true that you can't teach an old dog new tricks; all you need is a receptive dog, a good trick and a b****y good teacher!

Thanks, Lucy, Michelle and the students - I think we'll be hearing more from them in future.




Sunday, 26 January 2014

Mine eyes dazzle


Yesterday afternoon I spent nearly three hours being by turns dazzled and plunged into darkness in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - the indoor theatre at Shakespeare's Globe. I shall write about the building itself over at The History Girls blog on February 1st. But this is a review of the production, hard though it is to prize this jewel from its setting.

Gemma Arterton is the Duchess in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, a play probably first performed in 1613. So, just over four hundred years ago, Shakespeare's own company The King's Men, was premièring this piece of "Jacobean Gothic" in their indoor theatre at Blackfriars. She certainly looked the part - beautiful and dignified even in the hideous death we saw enacted only feet away from us in the Lower Gallery.

She doesn't have a long history of stage experience however and never reached beyond being a good rather than a great Duchess. But her evil twin Ferdinand, as played by David Dawson was as electrifying as she was serene. Like a manic Sheldon Cooper in a wig, he degenerated from a sinister schemer, driven by incestuous jealousy, to a gibbering lunatic, still capable of murder.

The third sibling, the Cardinal, as played by James Garnon, was the very incarnation of conscienceless self-interest, whether poisoning his mistress or ordering another murder. (We know he had earlier condemned Bosola to years serving in the galleys for carrying out earlier murky deeds for him).

The Duchess is a widow, Webster's heroine based on the real life Giovanna d'Aragona, who lost her husband, the Duke of Amalfi, when she was nineteen. Her brothers are anxious that she should not marry without their approval but she has already made her choice: her Steward Antonio Bologna. (Malvolio must have known this story).

Bosola (Sean Gilder) becomes the brothers' placeman at court, keeping his eyes and ears open for signs that the Duchess is bestowing her favours  on anyone they would disapprove of. He notices that she is wearing (contrary to the Italian fashion) a "loose-bodied gown" and suspects a pregnancy. His present to her of early apricots, perhaps designed to establish cravings, seems to bring on labour and we know as Bosola doesn't, that she bears Antonio a son.

It is Webster's invention that the Duchess herself proposes to Antonio:

"I do here put off all vain ceremony,
And only do appear to you a young widow
That claims you for her husband..."

Just as its his invention that her son by Antonio can claim the Dukedom of (A)Malfi, once both his parents have been murdered. What are we to make of that? The historical Giovanna had two children by her Duke and it's one of those who inherited the title.

Webster's changes to the source material make him seem a feminist and a believer in inheritance through the female line. Was that still dangerous in James the First's day, when first the Tudor and thence the Stuart dynasty hinged on denying that possibility?

Back to this production. The Antonio (Alex Waldmann) was disappointing, being somewhat shorter than Gemma Arterton, and he just didn't seem attractive enough to have won the great lady's heart.

It is an extraordinary play, with its scene between the Duchess and Ferdinand played in the dark - here in absolute pitch darkness - and the reveal of a tableau of waxwork corpses convincing her that Antonio and their son are both dead.

And the final scene raises the body count even higher than that of Hamlet - blood-boltered indeed. But it was disconcerting to hear the audience laughing so much. Maybe it was just the wrong audience but surely a production should be audience-proof?

And there are some good jokes in the piece, from Ferdinand telling courtiers that they mustn't laugh till he does, to the gruesome joke of the Cardinal's own making when he tells his followers not to come to his aid if they hear him cry out. He means to murder Antonio but is then hoist by his own petard when the belatedly repentant Bosola turns on the Cardinal and stabs him.

It is as different as possible from the stunningly-staged and lit Jamie Lloyd production at the Old Vic in 2012. Much more intimate as the tiny theatre makes it, Dominic Dromgoole's interpretation brings out the richness of the language, as the candles pinpoint the gilding on the frons scenae and the metal thread in the women's costumes.




Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Looking at the Stars by Jo Cotterill - a review


I heard Jo Cotterill read the opening of this book at a writers' retreat last summer and I thought then - "Blimey, she's brave!" Now the completed book is out I have no reason to revise my opinion. No country, religion or ruling party is mentioned but Amina and her sister Jenna live in a hot country where women are required to wear headscarves and "liberating" soldiers are arriving to depose the Kwana who rule repressively.

Amina's stable family life is overturned in a moment, when her rebellious older brother runs away to join the resistance, her father is murdered in front of her, and she and Jenna are separated from their mother and little sister at a checkpoint on their way to a refugee camp.

It doesn't sound like much fun in a synopsis, does it?

The bulk of the book takes place in the overcrowded refugee camp where Amina and Jenna have to make do with virtually nothing. And yet they manage to make friends and have some kind of a life. This is largely because Amina has one inalienable possession - her imagination. She is a gifted storyteller and gradually her fame spreads in the camp, with more and more people coming to hear her invented tales.

There is a reunion of a kind at the end but not a happy ending as such. Amina and Jenna have new responsibilities. But somehow we know they will cope and survive, especially with Amina's stories to give them hope and keep their spirits up.



Jo Cotterill's story is utterly convincing, at times brutal and upsetting but ultimately a tribute to the power of the imagination to lift the human spirit above the harsh realities of life. "We are all in the gutter/ but some of us are looking at the stars" is the quotation from Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol which gave her the title and is the book's epigraph.

(You might know Jo's other teenage novels: Red Tears and Screwed, written as Jo Kenrick. But be warned: this one is not suitable for the young readership that have enjoyed her Sweet Hearts series also written as Jo Cotterill).


Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Close your Pretty Eyes by Sally Nicholls - a review

When Jane Austen said she had written a heroine that no-one but herself would much like, she meant not Fanny Price, as I had misremembered, but Emma Woodhouse. I thought about this assessment when I read Sally Nicholls' Close Your Pretty Eyes, because she has taken the bold step of creating a protagonist-narrator who practically begs you not to like her.

Olivia has lived in sixteen homes since the age of five and she warns you that she is a monster and a witch and that her mother doesn't love her on the first page of the book. On the next page she admits that she tells lies: Olivia is the very definition of an unreliable narrator.

She tells her history in reverse - like Stuart, a Life backwards - starting with the new foster home she has at age eleven, with Jim Ivey and his family and working back to her birth mother who didn't love her. And the Iveys will not be her last home even within the book.

Olivia is the foster child from hell: she puts each new placement to the test by behaving as badly as she possibly can, as if forcing each foster parent (and one children's home) to fulfill her belief that she is unlovable and chuck her out.

But she has had some placements from hell too, from the terrifying abusive Violet to the bland "mummy and daddy" who adopted Olivia's younger sister Hayley but didn't want Olivia herself. There are some blood-curdling stories here, all of which combine to confirm Olivia's belief that "something went wrong when I was born."

It looks as if she might have a chance with Jim Ivey, who has custody of his own two children, Daniel and Harriet, and already fosters a teenager with a baby. They live in an old farmhouse, low and long, and Olivia soon finds out that it used to be home to a notorious criminal.

Amelia Dyer was a Victorian baby farmer, convicted and hanged for the murder of hundreds of her charges - and Olivia can see her. She can hear babies crying too and confuses the sound with the crying of Maisy, the fostered teenager's baby. Gradually the ghost of Amelia comes to dominate Olivia's life at the Iveys and leads her to do the worse thing yet in a foster placement.

Sally Nicholls signing copies at the launch of Close Your Pretty Eyes

If you thought Tracy Beaker was pushing the boundaries, read Close Your Pretty Eyes. The reader's heart breaks to see Olivia deliberately destroying every chance of a loving family life, time after time, because she just can't believe that anyone really wants her.

I found the ghost story almost an irrelevance. Olivia's story would have pulled me in just on its own without the supernatural element. But it is nevertheless terrifying.

And the ending, when Olivia is in her sixteenth home and writes to Jim Ivey asking him to forgive her and take her back, is magnificent. I won't spoil what Sally Nicholls does with it. In the five years since she won the Waterstones' Prize with her début, Ways to Live Forever, Saly nicholls has continued to surprise and enthrall.

Sally Nicholls' titles
(The photos are by Carolyn Hunter)