Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Williams goes mainstream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grevel Lindop

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

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

It clearly takes one to write about one.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Plenty of Ham - no let

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

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

We bought the DVD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 13 September 2015

An appreciation of Terry Pratchett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite Discworld Novels*

Guards! Guards!
Reaper Man
Witches Abroad

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

My Favourite Discworld characters

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

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Outcaste by Ellen Renner

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Out with the old, in with the new

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Ness and Julia Eccleshare

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

Our new Laureate

Chris as Superhero The Doodler

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

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Egypt's answer to Montmartre *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons - Eslam17

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

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.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Losing the plot - what Peter Jackson did to The Hobbit

Photo by Stefan Servos
Well, I've done it. I've seen the third Hobbit movie, The Battle of The Five Armies. When I first heard there were going to be three films made of the slender children's book that prefaced Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, I knew they wouldn't be good. It was clearly a commercial decision not an aesthetic or literary one.

I read the book only once or twice as a child, after discovering LoTR, as opposed to re-reading the trilogy every year till I was eighteen and was forced to realise that the writing wasn't as good as the world-building and plot.

The Hobbit first came out in 1937 and I have the 50th anniversary edition with this cover:

The strongest memory I have of the book is not from my childhood, however, but from the middle daughter's. We were started on my reading it to her when she was admitted, aged seven, to hospital with appendicitis. Between A & E and a surgeon and operating theatre becoming available, we were in a room in a children's ward and she was in pain but also hungry and it was strictly a Nil by Mouth situation.

So I read to her from The Hobbit, bowdlerising for food as I went along; it was very hard. Passages like this:

"At last Gandalf pushed away his plate and jug - he had eaten two whole loaves (with masses of butter and honey and clotted cream) and drank at least a quart of mead."

That would have been cruel to a little girl suffering two kinds of tummy pangs. (We had reached the house of Beorn, you will realise).

I have, of course, read it since then, middlest daughter now being a grown up woman with a husband and baby. The last time was probably after seeing the first Hobbit movie. Then I was struck by how - although clearly a book for children, with a very simple plot - there was a very dull coda after the big battle at the end which seemed to be a rather bureaucratic division of the spoils. All the action, quest and adventure just dissolved.

We were as a family very charmed by Peter Jackson's vision of Tolkien's world and looked forward to seeing each LoTR film each Christmas. Maybe that's why husband and self, without the rest of the family continued to make the pilgrimage to Cineworld every December: we wanted to revisit that  transformation of New Zealand that is Middle Earth.


In order to stretch the story over three movies, extraneous bits of plot had to be added. Specifically the spurious love affair between a female elf and a male dwarf.

Kili A.K.A. Aidan Turner

Tauriel A.K.A. Evangeline Lilly
It felt fake from the beginning, with an older, fatter Legolas (Orlando Bloom) appearing as Kili's rival and a whole extraneous sub-plot about Legolas' father, Thranduil (Lee Pace), who appeared younger and sexier than his own son in a Jason-Isaacs-as-Lucius-Malfoy sort of way.

And clearly we are supposed to care about this love-match with the tension, and music, being ratcheted up for Kili's death and Tauriel's grief (Sorry- Spolier!). But I couldn't have cared less. (Kili and his brother Fili do die in the book but their deaths are dismissed in a sentence; they fell defending their kinsman Thorin Oakenshield).

It is quite clear that the writers understood that their source material would not uphold three movies so they grafted on what they thought would make it justifiable but it shows in every phrase of the clunky script.

Things that did work:

Smaug. Forget the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, though that didn't hinder. Any decent director with the Weta Workshop at his disposal could and should create a convincing dragon and his hoard and Peter Jackson did not disappoint. The problem was we got one eye opening at the very end of the first part: An Unexpected Journey and the devastation of Lake Town all over before the credits in The Battle of the Five Armies. So only in the middle movie, The Desolation of Smaug, was the dragon used to full effect.

Bard the Bowman. Played by Luke Evans, Bard was the only credible human, caring for his motherless children and generally being an all-round good egg, Dragon-Slayer and effective leader after the destruction of Lake-Town.

Thorin's dragon-sickness. It was a bit repetitive and tedious but nevertheless convincing that Thorin (played by Richard Armitage) lost any moral centre in the lust for treasure and the recovery of the Arkenstone.

Martin Freeman as the Hobbit. But woefully, woefully underused!

All the Dol Guldur stuff apart from  Radaghast (Sylvester McCoy) and his bunny sleigh. It was nice to see Elrond again (Hugo Weaving).

Things that did not:

Turning the Goblins into Orcs and having a whole sub-plot that repeated stuff in LoTR.

Kili/Tauriel love plot and Legolas/Thranduil conflict as mentioned above.

Casting hunky TALL males as dwarves. And leaving the hunkier without prosthetic noses and other bulbous facial characteristics.

Forgetting what happened to the Arkenstone, in spite of its importance to Thorin and the main plot.

Repeatedly omitting the arrival of the Second Orc Army[sic] in spite of the many threats that it was coming.

In fact who were the Five Armies? In the book it's men, elves, dwarves, goblins and the "Wild Wolves." In the film it's dwarves, elves, men and orcs. Said orcs do ride Wargs, it's true but the numbers just don't add up.

And to cap it all a sudden and previously unsuspected flock of SuperGoats appear to transport Thorin and other dwarves up to the rocky prominence where the Orc-ish creature with a blade for an arm awaits them. The goats then vanish.

It's Star Wars all over again: the second trilogy (which comes first chronologically) had better CGI and effects but lost the magic of parts lV, V and Vl.

In the Hobbit movies if the returning Sauron had been that strong and mustered those forces, the LoTR trilogy would never have happened.

Why did no-one have the courage to tell Peter Jackson he was making three Christmas turkeys, even if they turn out to be high-grossing seasonal fowl? It's all in the story and the script, Peter. You knew that once. What happened? Did success make you unable to know when you were repeating yourself (piles of dead elves, battles with rocks being hurled by trolls, seeming dead person under ice opening eyes etc. etc).

It is just possible that someone who hadn't read the book might have enjoyed these films on their own terms. But no-one surely could have defended them as good? If you did, please comment.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Lets Toys be Toys

I am so impressed by this campaign! Toys - and books - labelled "for girls" or "for boys" should be a thing of the past.

From the seven-year-old girl who objected to Tesco's putting a "for boys" sign on a superhero alarm clock to the seven-year-old boy who can't wait for me to teach him to knit this weekend, our children do NOT fit into the commercial boxes that some companies want to create for them.

I can honestly say that what one mother of a newborn called called "the tsunami of pink" is far worse now than when I raised my three daughters. At least they had She-Ra as well as Flower Fairies.

And from what I hear it's just as bad for boys.

When I was little I hated all dolls but I might have felt differently if they had looked like this:

This is a "Lammily doll," the first ever to be made to ordinary human proportions, unlike Barbies and Sindys. You can even add tattoos, stretch marks and cellulite!

I reviewed a book called "Made by Raffi"  on the blog here. It is about a real boy who doesn't care for football but prefers to make clothes.

I liked books, drawing things, toy animals, dressing-up clothes (male and female), my toy Post Office and toy circus. I liked pretending to be cowboys, soldiers and guards, as well as princesses.

So I give my support to  www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk (You can use the hashtag #shopoutsidethebox this Christmas)