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
Thud!

* 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

Death
Sam Vimes
Lord Vetinari
All three Witches
Greebo
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...."


Thursday, 21 May 2015

Bologna 2015

Apologies for the long hiatus in this blog - I have been dealing with a family medical issue. As a compensation, here is my long overdue report on the Bologna Book Fair. A version of this has already appeared on BookBrunch.

Day One

The sun is shining and the sky is blue! This is what people who stay behind in the UK each spring think that the Bologna Book Fair is like every year but the last few have been cold and wet. Since we left Heathrow in such weather on Sunday afternoon, this new climate is very welcome.

We walk into this year’s fair following a trail of Alice-related images – playing cards, cut-outs of black and white Dodos and a White Rabbit. It’s the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a good theme for a fair which is all about not knowing what you’re going to find next.

I start, after the usual crowded and stressful business of registering with the Press Office, with Hachette, a large stand to house all its many imprints. Nirmal Sandhu is Head of Rights for the whole Hachette Children’s Group and the first thing he shows me is the follow up to Steve Antony’s picture book, The Queen’s Hat, which I raved about last year.

The new one is The Queen’s Handbag, making me wonder if there will be a whole series of Royal accessories as book subjects. How far will Steve Antony go? As before, the illustrations take us on a whirlwind of guardsmen and others trying to locate the missing object but we now get as far as the Angel of the North.

These appeal to me more than the “panda books” by the same author/illustrator but it’s the latter that are making big sales – with a print run of 115,000 copies for the first one, Please Mr Panda. I’ll wait, Mr Panda follows in January next year.

The big news on the Orchard list is a new Charlie and Lola title, from Lauren Child, who was at the Fair. One Thing shows young Lola tackling arithmetic in her inimitable style (it’s 15 years since the first Charlie and Lola book and this is the fifth title – “the funniest one yet” according to Hachette).

Another highlight for me was the new Pat Hutchins coming in May from Hodder – Where, Oh Where is Rosie’s Chick? When publicity departments say “the long-awaited sequel” they don’t often mean 47 years, which is how long it is since Rosie and the fox first walked across the farmyard and into children’s collective memory in Hutchins’ stylised pictures.

Then it was on to Quarto, where I met with new Children’s publisher Rachel Williams and editor Jenny Broom. As well as running the Frances Lincoln list, they have originated a new imprint Wide-Eyed Books. Both having come from Templar and Jenny having written the worldwide success Animalium, they are ideally placed to produce a new list of stunning non-fiction titles.


I was lucky enough to see some of them at the ALA winter conference in Chicago this year and Wide-Eyed will be publishing 20 titles a year by 2016. Books like The School of Art, with 40 “lessons” taught by five fictional professors on topics from colour to perspective.

There’s a lovely picture book from Frances Lincoln too, called The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield, which is all about creativity, celebrity and belonging.

Bloomsbury next, where I saw Jim Kay’s colour artwork for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s already been sold into 22 territories and that’s all I’m allowed to tell you or MD Emma Hopkin might have to kill me. The first book will be out in October and Jim will illustrate all seven titles, with the complete text.

Other highlights are the American Sarah J. Maas’ new book A Court of Thrones and Roses, starting a new series and our home grown Michael Rosen, whose middle grade novel, Uncle Grobb and the Dread Shed, features a 10-year-old boy with an uncle who, in Neal Layton’s illustrations, looks rather like Michael Gove!

Aisling Smith, the Rights Executive at HarperCollins, showed me the book that was announced to great excitement at the last Fair, a lovely Irish collaboration between writer Eoin Colfer and illustrator Oliver Jeffers. Imaginary Fred has provoked a lot of interest from both men’s existing publishers in foreign territories. I was quite anxious reading this tale of a boy and his invented companion, who seems likely to disappear as he makes a real friend but it all turned out fine.

Rob Biddulph’s Grrr! was another book about bears, this time one who loses his growl before the Best Bear championships. Or was it stolen?

My last publisher meeting of the day was with the newly amalgamated Penguin Random House at their huge stand. Zosia Knopp, Rights Director, and Shannon Cullen, Publisher for Puffin Fiction, showed me a dazzling array of wares.

But the first innovation is no paper Rights Guides! Just two credit-sized laminated cards with the URLs of them. If every publisher at Bologna did this, my suitcase would be a lot lighter on the way back.

They had everything from a new Lauren Child, The New Small Person, about the arrival of a baby sibling (which I was pleased to see featured a Black family, without comment) to the second YA book from Sally Green, Half Wild. (Her Half Bad is now in 51 languages).

And a new Allan Ahlberg called Hubble Trouble, illustrated by Bruce Ingram, featuring Alison Hubble who wakes up one morning to find there are two of her.

Already, at the end of day one, I have seen some clear trends, especially in picture books: Bears are always with us and there are some fine new ones, but also Lions seem to be everywhere. Pugs, imaginary friends, time travel, gorgeous adult colouring books and information books that look like trade titles.

Work (almost) finished for the day, we began to wind down with Prosecco at the OUP stand, where Joel Stewart’s Tiny Cops and Robbers featured prominently, a modern take on The Borrowers. There were also many copies on display of Daniel Hahn’s The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature – not a children’s book obviously but eyed covetously by all the party guests.

The final event of the day was a bigger party, the annual Scholastic bash, this year in the grand Palazzo Re Enzo in the Piazza Maggiore, in the Salone del Podestà – the very room was the first Bologna Children’s Rights Fair was held 52 years ago.

Guest of honour was Dav Pilkey. If the name means nothing to you the title of his series Captan Underpants certainly will. It has sold 70 million copies wordwide. A very personable man, Pilkey had the room on his side when he told of his childhood ADHD in America and his dyslexia. He was told he couldn’t spend his life drawing comics and making people laugh.

Day Two

Miraculously the sun is still shining and the British contingent is complaining about not having packed enough summer clothes. It’s “agent day” for me but on the way up to the Agents Centre, I stop off to visit my Italian publishers Lo Stampatello. They tell me that Forza Italia, the right wing group has been burning their books (including mine) for encouraging homosexuality but there has been a counter demonstration in Milan, where they are based, in support of our books.

We shake our heads over Signori Dolce and Gabbana and then I go to visit Caroline Sheldon. She represents Teri Terry, whose Slated trilogy has just won its 12th regional prize in the UK. Terry is writing a new trilogy, Dark Matter, also urban futuristic thrillers, the first called Book of Lies.

Caroline is getting interest in a new book by Patrice Lawrence, called Last Man Standing, which Hodder are publishing in the UK. It’s about a Black boy who gets caught in a downward spiral of suspicion and danger.

My next agent is Stephanie Thwaites from Curtis Brown and she agrees there is no “book of the fair” so far and it might be an outdated concept. She shows me the gorgeous cover for Catherine Johnson’s The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, which Random House are publishing in June. It is a curious tale indeed, about a young woman who claimed to be a princess but might have been a confidence trickster.

There was interest too in a new series from Joe Craig called Quantum Ninja about a time-travelling Elizabethan and Sam Hepburn’s If You Were Me, sold to Chicken House about a family escaping from Afghanistan, only to end up in a different kind of danger in Britain.

Taking a break from agents and looking longingly at the Gelateria at the bottom of the escalator down from the Agents Centre, I go to visit Barrington Stoke, who have always got lots of interesting books in their dyslexia-friendly list.

But now they’ve started another venture, Conkers, which is more oriented towards to reluctant reader aged 7-9 than the dyslexic one. It’s being led by Philip Ardagh’s The Unlikely Outlaws and the re-issued Hook or by Crook by the late Jan Mark.

Their app that I wrote about last year is nearly ready to launch, after a few glitches. There will be more to see at the London Book Fair and it will offer the app for free and the books (12 to begin with) at the same price as a paper book. But the reader will be able to choose the background colour and use the “reading ruler” to keep their place in the book.

Dyslexia was another theme of the Fair with not just Dav Pilker but Sally Gardner and Liz Pychon all present. I caught up with Sally later when I managed that gelato in the sun.

Sally Gardner, Sarah Towle and me
But I had to return to the Agents Centre for now and a fascinating session with Sophie Hicks, late of Ed Victor and now running her own agency. An early success for her has been Weightless by Sarah Bannan, an American début author living in Dublin. Sophie pitched it as both YA and adult by Martin’s Press). It’s a chilling High School thriller, already sold to Germany and Hungary.

Then there is a new book from Herbie Brennan, Changeling, after a long gap since his very successful Faerie Wars. This has been bought by Mondadori and is being launched in Lucca and the Comics and Games conference which actually features in the book.

Surprisingly. Actress Emerald Fennell (the tragic Patsy in Call the Midwife) has written a “blackly comic tale” called Monsters, about twelve-year-olds who find a body on a beach in Cornwall. Hot Key are the UK publishers.

And I’m pleased to see how well Lucy Coats’ Cleo (Orchard, May) is doing, since Lucy is my companion at the Fair and I’ve heard a bit about it during the writing. A teenage Cleopatra before she became Pharaoh is a winning idea for a YA novel. [I’ve now read it and it is brilliant!]

I get the chance for a quick review of my editor Janetta Otter-Barry’s notes on my latest Great Big Book for Frances Lincoln, with Ros Asquith. This one is The Great Big Body Book – not an anatomy book but one that talks about all sorts of aspects and attitudes. I can certainly predict that Forza Italia will hate it.

After my gelato, it’s time to go and hear nine Laureates from round the world, including our own Malorie Blackman. Two of them, Aneurin Karadog from Wales and Martin Davis, who is the Laureate for Englsih speakers in Wales, are both performance poets and give us raps, the latter with beat-boxing and we have to join in.

Eoin Colfer is the Laureate for Ireland (Laureate Nà Nog) and treats us to an entertaining story from his teaching days when he had written the school Nativity play and there was an incident with a missing baby Jesus. Once the doll was found a lobbed into the crib by a “shepherd” the cry went up “it’s a miracle!”

They are all very entertaining and by the time they have finished it is time to drink more Prosecco, this time at the Barrington Stoke stand, which is so conveniently on a corner that all sorts of people drop by. Indeed Eoin Colfer himself arrives, after downing some whiskey at the simultaneous party on the Irish stand.

If it sounds as if there is more partying than anything else going on at the Fair, it’s because publishers and agents have back-to-back appointments every half hour from 8.30am and when they finish their day at 5.30pm, there’s usually a drink and a nibble to be had somewhere.

And though there may be no “book of the fair” the story of the fair is certainly the removal of the agents’ loos. There was almost a riot (remember the back-to-back appointments?) and the queues for the ones in the Halls are so long for the Ladies that strong letters are being sent to the Bologna organisers.

I predict the Agents’ loos will be back next year.

Day Three

On Wednesday we pack up ready for our flight in the afternoon and head back out for our last day at the Fair. My first appointment is someone who has been in post a very short time, Jane Harris, the new Executive Director for Children’s Fiction at Hot Key. But she’s clearly been reading up a storm. First up is a two book series by Ciaran Murtagh, The Fincredible Diary of Fin Spencer, for the all-popular Middle Grade market. It’s already been sold to Denmark, Hungary and Turkey.

Linda Coggin, whose The Boy with the Tiger’s Heart was a big hit here last year, has a new novel called The Dog, Ray, about a girl who dies and comes back as a dog!

Their lead YA book is Julie Mayhew’s The Big Lie, which is set in a fictional future where the Nazis run Britain. It’s a sort of Fatherland meets The Handmaid’s Tale, says Jane.

I’m glad to see that Claire McFall has found a home at Hot Key with Black Cairn Point. Her début was the very striking Ferryman for Templar before their fiction list was axed and it’s good to see McFall still under the Bonnier umbrella.

And she’s right on trend with this story of a camping trip gone wrong, as realistic YA thrillers are very much the preferred genre and we are finally seeing the last of Dystopias.

It was good to fit in another brief meeting with Janetta Otter-Barry in her new capacity as Publisher of the independent Otter-Barry Books. Janetta will remain at Frances Lincoln, where she started the children’s list 25 years ago, until June, but then will publish her own titles in picture books and poetry.

Kangaroo Kisses in by Nandana Sen, daughter of the Nobel Economist Amartya Sen. Her illustrator, Pippa Curnick, won the Seven Stories Illustration Competition in 2012. Their book, bought from Sophie Hicks – so new ventures on both sides – is an unusual take on the little girl who won’t go to bed.

And Dreamer is a poem of Brian Moses about an unpolluted world, beautifully illustrated by Bee Willey.

Alyx Price at Macmillan told me that Frank Cottrell Boyce’s The Astounding Broccoli Boy had sold 2,257 copies in hardback in the UK in the last week. Frank was at the Fair too, apparently, with his mum. Macmillan have given his backlist (Millions, Framed, Cosmic) a new look to match the cover of the new book, each featuring a shadowy but larger-than-life super hero figure. I am tickled to see that the binding of Broccoli Boy is covered in tiny penguins. They do feature memorably in the book.

Meg Cabot had been at the Fair too – surely there are more authors here than in any other year? – and Macmillan are celebrating fifteen years since the Princess Diaries. Her new book is Notebooks of a Middle School Princess and is bound to continue the winning formula.

It seems to be the year of anniversaries. It’s ten years since Emily Gravett’s Wolves and she has designed a new special edition with ten little rabbits having their own book inside.

There’s a tradition for Lucy and me to meet John McLay the literary scout before we leave the Fair and to pick his brains about trends. He now concentrates on British YA because it’s so strong and he wants to talk it up. Fish Boy by Chloe Dakin has been sold to Faber and that and The Graces by Sam Copland were both “witchy”.

But the mash-ups are still ongoing: The Last Duchess by Lawre Eve was described as “Dowton Abbey with dragons.”

Still, John thinks that basic YA is still about love and all that differs is where the love story takes place.

My last publisher is Kate Wilson at Nosy Crow – always a pleasure. The firm started only four years ago and is already the 16th biggest children’s publisher in the UK and sawa growth of 41% last year. She finds there’s a big appetite for Novelty books and something like Axel (the Gruffalo) Scheffer’s Flip Flap series is easy to sell (140,000 copies so far).

They’ve been having a lot of success with Big Bug Log by Sebastien Braun – “a book in the shape of a brown log – who’d have guessed?” – and they still publish successful young fiction like Philip Ardagh’s The Grunts. But they continue to lead the way in apps for younger readers too.

We pass the now fully coloured-in Animorphia picture at Michael O’Mara .There is just time to take a quick look at the Illustrators’ Exhibition before leaving and pick out an artist from Poland, Gurowska Malgorzata. The number of walls with would-be illustrators’ details on has increased to over a dozen. How many of them will ever end up in an exhibition?
Trains by Gurowska Malgorzata
So, another busy, buzzy Bologna with deals still being made as we leave. It does feel a bit like stepping out of Wonderland.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Rhino, a Rainbow and an icon

Anyone on here remember "bibliotherapy"? It was big in the '70s and meant that there should be an "issue" book to go with most "issues" that a child would encounter - everything from a new sibling and first day at school to death and divorce.

The best books just had a good story - like John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat or Badger's Gifts and children took what they wanted from them.

These days we don't hear much about bibliotherapy  - maybe because there is such a plethora of what we'd now call "issues books" that people take it for granted that a well-written, attractively illustrated book can make children feel better about a lot of things.


This sympathetic picture book deals with children's fears in a way that is both striking and comforting. The authors are LeVar Burton and Susan Schaefer Bernardo and the illustrator is Courtenay Fletcher. I don't expect I'm the only one who knows far more about the first name than about the other two, especially in the UK.

LeVar Burton sprang to stardom as the twenty-year-old star of the TV version of Alex Haley's Roots; he was Kunta Kinte and was the Chiwetel Ejiofor of his day:


But then he had a whole new career as Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation up on deck with captain Jean-Luc Picard, Lieutenant Riker, Data and Whorf. He was a blind Chief Engineering Officer with a VISOR that allowed him to sense energy waves, a prop based on a woman's hair barrette that gave him a headache every day on set for six years.

And then this versatile actor got the job of presenting the US children's literacy TV series Reading Rainbow and was immensely popular in this role. Now that Burton has tried his hand at writing the same warm, avuncular personality comes through in the text of The Rhino who Swallowed a Storm. Schaefer Bernardo is a poet so I'm guessing she helped Burton turn his story into rhyme.

There is a framing device of a father mouse comforting a little one who  lost her house in a hurricane. When a new storm is raging, Papa mouse puts down his copy of Gouda Times (nice!) and reads her the story of the rhino. (Actually I think the book would have been just as good without this device).

The rhino comes from a time "before there were words" and when a terrible storm destroyed all that was dear to him. He was so upset and angry that he opened his mouth and gulped the storm down inside himself.  It took a long time a lot of help from his friends before he was able to release it in a storm of tears.

It's a book about alowing yourself to let your feelings out and about how we all need help from others.

I don't know if it's available in the UK but it certainly should be.