Friday, 31 December 2010

Books - can we trust the government?

Hot on the heels of the library cuts debate came to threat to cut the government subsidy to three Booktrust bookgifting schemes: Bookstart, Booktime and Booked Up. This is spite of the fact that Booktrust generates £56m against the £13m given to them.

I have been busy writing letters to the press and MPs, including mine, the PM, for weeks it seems. But the absolute Yuletide biscuit has to go to Ross Clark (who he?), writing in the Times on 27th December. In case you missed it, and of course you can't read it online without being a Times subscriber, he had the nerve to say that children's writers speaking out in support of the Booktrust schemes, such as Philip Pullman, were just lamenting another chance to line their pockets.

Yes because writers for children are all as rich as JK Rowling, I suppose? It was a phenomenally ignorant column and I wrote a furious letter. They did publish it on 29th, but since they cut the last two sentences, I reproduce it in full here:

"What planet is Ross Clark living on? (Thunderer "Booktrust funding is just an enormous bung for authors" 27.12.2010) One where nurseries and schools are "awash with books" and children's authors "have grown fat" on proceeds of Booktrust's bookgifting schemes is much more of a fantasy than the world he posits where there are "fountains of free soup."

Mr Clark dares to impugn Philip Pullman's good faith in calling for the government not to cut funding to Booktrust's schemes (a decision which has fortunately been reversed). When I heard about the plan to cut the bookgifting schemes, I and many other children's authors wrote to the press to complain, with no idea whether my books were used in the schemes or not. I doubt that Philip Pullman checked on whether his books were included either because that is entirely not the point.

Doesn't Mr Clark know how many homes in the UK are without books? Or how many school and public libraries have been closed and are threatened to disappear under the coalition's proposed austerity measures? And how many librarians will lose their jobs?

Another fact he might have wanted to check on is how much on average children's authors earn per year. In the survey I published in 2006 and others carried out by the Society of Authors it was around £5K. Unless Mr Clark is similarly poorly rewarded for his writing, I suggest he donate his fee for that outrageous column to the Royal Literary Fund's benevolent scheme or, better still, use it to buy some books for his nearest poor school.

Though I suspect it will be a long taxi-ride away from Planet La-La".



Happy New Year!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Have yourselves a Merry little Christmas

This is my annual picture of what the front garden looks like but I promise this is not a recycled photo; it took it on Saturday .

exactly one week before Christmas. Who knows where we shall all be by then? Our own plans all involve driving: Winchester, Eastleigh, Eastbourne, Henfield then back here, so everything depends on the snow and the roads in Oxfordshire, Hampshire and Sussex.

But these are minor problems compared with families stranded at Heathrow and other airports or people in Scotland who have had it like this for weeks and are running out of oil.

If it looks too bad, we won't travel on 22nd (our Wedding Anniversary) but will hibernate here with log fires, cats reprieved from cattery, and the two crackers left over from last Christmas! There's plenty of food in the freezer, logs in the woodstore and wine in the garage.

And we have books! Boy, do we have books! I hope you do too, wherever you are and however improvised your Christmas ends up being. May your Amazon parcels arrive on time, may you make it to your local indy and cheer up their seasonal; sales figures, and if you have an e-reader I hope it has been well-laden with titles before you travel.

A very happy Christmas to all my followers, fellow-bloggers, writers and readers everywhere.

And to the Scrooges who want to close our libraries, may your baubles drop off!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Three great picture books - one publisher

It was only when I came to think about what were the loveliest picture books of the year that I realised they were all published by Macmillan. So stand up and take a bow, editors and art directors at Macmillan, alongside your hugely talented writers and artists, you have produced three of my favourite picture books of this year.

First up is The Wychwood Fairies. Anyone who knows me will be rather surprised by how much I like this book, given my propensity to rant against anything remotely "girly" or pink. But this book by "Harriet Everdene" and Faye Durston is an explorer's manual, not a soppy airy-fairy story about bland squirrel-stroking sprites.

Harriet is an Official Fairy Researcher at Wychwood, a magical area not far from where I live, as it happens. She sends letters and postcards to her niece and nephew, all of which you can read in this delightful feat of paper-engineering. The look is very reminiscent of a Templar "-ology" book and will bring just as much pleasure to anyone who unwraps it under a Christmas Tree.


Macmillan have put together two great talents in the persons of Julia Donaldson and Emily Gravett, who combine to make Cave Baby irresistible. Two cavepeople have an artistically-minded baby who wants to decorate the walls of their home. Cavemother does not appreciate his efforts, much like a more evolved parent, but a woolly mammoth captures the baby and takes him on an exhilarating and a bit frightening ride through the night to another cave.

There the baby happily splashes around with paint to produce some wall art that the mammoth family admire. There's a touch of Where the Wild Things Are about it as the contented baby dreams of primary-coloured wild creatures on the final spread. Lovely.

Emily Gravett strikes again with The Rabbit Problem. This paperback edition has a discreet hole through one side, which means you could hang it on your wall and use it as a calendar, but I don't imagine it would stay so out of reach for long. Lots and lots and lots of rabbits multiply through its gloriously drawn pages as one lonely rabbit in Fibonacci's (!) Field, finds a mate and the inevitable glut of bunnies ensues.

This perfect book for lagophiles, which even includes carrot recipes, ends with a heavenly pop-up explosion of rabbits leaping out of the last spread. Heavenly.

I hope lots of children get one of these in (eek!) less than two weeks' time. Preferably all three.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Are you sick of hearing about libraries yet?

If the answer is "yes,' then tough! I have a lot to say about libraries. The first one here is Lavender Hill, Battersea, and we lived up the opposite hill, St.John's, when I was a child. I went there every Saturday, with my father, to take out our quota for the week.

My dad, having been taken out of school at fourteen by his father, was an auto-didact and borrowed mainly non-fiction. My choices were Worzel Gummidge, Dr. Dolittle and Mary Poppins (libraries are perfect for books that come in series). Later there was The Lord of the Rings.

I loved Lavender Hill library because the cone-topped turret made me think it was a fairy castle, a belief I still think not far from the truth. We didn't have all that many books in our flat in St John's Hill. It was a "railway flat" because my dad worked for the Railways at Waterloo (no-one said British Rail in those days). We had the complete works of Dickens, which I later devoured.

I won an LCC scholarship to an independent girls' school, James Allen's in Dulwich, something that would not have happened if Lavender Hill hadn't encouraged me to be a bookworm. At JAGs there was a well-stocked library, where the qualified librarian turned a blind eye when I bunked off Games to read Greek Myths.

I wouldn't have moved on to my next library without the JAGs one.


This was at Newnham College, Cambridge. I was in Clough Hall where the library was. Every week I competed with nine other young women to borrow the texts and critical books needed for our weekly essays in English Literature. Recently I went back to that college to give a talk and a workshop. There is a new library, unrecognisable, which contains some of my own books. That would have been unimaginable when I was a student.


Spool forward ten years or more and I am living in Crouch End, raising young children. This less than beautiful building is Hornsey Library, where we took our little girls every week to get out their books, just as I used to with the grandfather they never knew.

They know this building as a friend, from teddy bear's tea parties when they were little till the oldest was taking out books on the Russian Revolution for her A level History.

Then in 1990 came a bombshell: Hornsey was scheduled for closure by Haringey council along with several other libraries. Yes, you didn't read the date wrong: I HAVE BEEN CAMPAIGNING TO KEEP LIBRARIES OPEN FOR TWENTY YEARS! No apologies for shouting. It makes me want to shout, nay, scream. It's not as if it's all been plain sailing since then either.

I was elected Chair of the Hornsey Library Campaign and ran successful events there for three years, supported by local celebs like Penelope Fitzgerald, Tim Pigott Smith and Buchi Emecheta. We kept all the libraries open. And again when Hornsey's music library was under threat, we saved that too. My little girls, bigger now, got used to marching on demos with placards saying "Save Our Libraries" and "Closed libraries = Closed Minds" which I see are being recycled now.

We became adept at doorstepping councillors as they went into meetings at Wood Green Civic Centre and thrusting leaflets into their hands. We recognised them from their mugshots in the local papers.

In 1993 I added to my campaigning by starting CENTRAL, a support group for School Library Services, which I ran for six years.This task has now been ably taken up by Alan Gibbon's Campaign for the Book.

Write about what you know, some people say, so in 1997 I published a novel called Special Powers, in which the heroine, Emily fights to save her local library. She is helped by a family of extra-terrestrials who have a personal agenda for wanting to keep it open: it is a gateway to the other world they have come from and their route home.

We had no aliens with special powers to help us save Hornsey and the other libraries but sheer people power did it and it seems we will have to do it again. The government has announced it is withdrawing finance from 50% of the libraries in Oxfordshire, the county I live in, including ones in impoverished areas like Blackbird Leys. They think they can be kept running by volunteers, an example of David Cameron's Big Society.

Well, David Cameron is my local MP and he will be getting a letter, as will Ed Vaizey and the imaginatively re-named by James Naughtie this morning, Jeremy Hunt Culture Secretary. Re-phrasing their heroine's famous dictum, I shall tell them "there is no such thing as Big Society"!

When Emily in Special Powers hears that her library is under threat of closure, she thinks, "It was like someone saying there weren't going to be any more Fridays or that red had been outlawed."



That's how it feels when you hear something so impossible and wrong. I came from a lower middle class family where no-one had been to university but where books and learning were respected. I know for sure that I would not be a writer of nearly a hundred published books if it had not been for the libraries - and librarians - of Lavender Hill, JAGs, Newnham and Hornsey.

I salute them and I will do everything I can to make sure that generations of children to come have the opportunities - and delights - that I did. Please join me by writing to David Cameron, Ed Vaizey and Jeremy Hunt. They've had to re-think the school sports cuts; let's make them do the same for libraries.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

My YA Novels of the Year

These are the books I have already blogged about this year or have had guest posts for: When I was Joe, The Enchanted Glass, Castle of Shadows, Wasted, Dead Boy Talking & Almost True, City of Thieves, The Mourning Emporium.

What a year!  And that's with my having to take time out from reviewing YA fiction from May to September because I was a judge for the Booktrust Teenage Book Prize. Then, once I was reading books that fell outside that time period, I could write about novels again.

And there are others, that were part of our longlist or shortlist that I couldn't mention at the time, so I'm now going to rave about a few more! The Prize was given to Gregory Hughes' striking debut, Unhooking the Moon, but that were some other corkers on the shortlist.

I particularly liked Halo by Zizou Corder, an unusual story about an orphaned girl brought up by Centaurs in ancient Greece. I thought it full of unexpected events and plot developments and interesting characters. Sarra Manning's Nobody's Girl was a perhaps more usual teenage girl fare but I so loved the way the heroine got her revenge on the mean girls and their Queen Bee that it stood out for me.

There were several books on our longlist that I really rated too - Keren David's When I was Joe (see above), Tamsyn Murray's quirky black comedy My so-called Afterlife and Marie-Louise Jensen's Daughter of Fire and Ice, to name but three.

And since the judging ended I read, reviewed and drooled over Gillian Philip's Firebrand, which is my Book of the Year in this category. Published by a smallish independent, Strident (who also published Linda Strachan's Dead Boy Talking and her earlier Spider, which just won the Catalyst award) Firebrand has already re-printed and is moving off the bookshop shelves faster than you can say "paranormal romance."

I said in my review for the Guardian that I hadn't enjoy a book in this genre so much since Susan Price's The Sterkarm Handshake, which leads me to two pieces of good news: Firebrand is the first in a trilogy and - pause here for a roll of drums - Susan Price is well stuck in to a third novel about the Sterkarms.

I can't wait for all these and many other great books in the coming years. And I hope to review them all here.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Joy of Sequels by Michelle Lovric

This is the first in an occasional series of guest posts from other children's writers. I'm delighted that my first guest is Michelle Lovric, whose anthology Venice, Tales of the City, I read years ago. Since she has been writing children's books, we have become friends, drawn together by a love of Italy and and a passion for words and colours.


I wrote about The Undrowned Child last year and have just read The Mourning Emporium, both published by Orion, which features some of the same characters. I thought it would be the ideal opportunity to ask this prolific and talented writer to muse a little on producing a sequel. It's something I have wrestled with myself, as the author of a "sequence" (currently five books with a sixth waiting to be written). How much do you recap and where? How many new characters do you introduce and how many carry forward? So I was fascinated to read this. Thank you, Michelle!



You’d think writing a sequel would be as comfortable as sliding into as a pair of pre-loved slippers, wouldn’t you?

You’d think – Characters created? TICK. Background established? TICK. The rules of this particular world? SORTED.


In fact, however, a sequel kicks a whole new team of problems into the writing game.

The first issue is the one that makes publishers worry about sequels. They are afraid that people will not buy the second book if they think they must also invest in the first. So you have to write a certain amount of back story in, just to make the new book comprehensible to your virgin reader.

But how much can you safely tuck in, without patronising your established fans? Where exactly do you insert it? Early on, in a lump, to get it out of the way? An indigestion of factlets threatens. Or do you drip-feed droplets of information on a need-to-know-now basis? This can sound very stagey, and could interrupt a crucial scene just when the page needs to be turned urgently.

Then you must decide which characters shall re-occur – including those you apparently destroyed – and which can be allowed to lapse.

One of the hardest things about a sequel is that you have to write its bones before you even put its predecessor to bed. So, in The Undrowned, I had to make sure that when Bajamonte Tiepolo, the Traitor, is swept away in a whirlpool, no-one actually sees him die. Nor do we know if every last Vampire Eel has perished. I planted a burden of guilt in my heroine Teo, because she cannot force herself to finish him off with a curse, despite his reign of murder and destruction in Venice. And nor has she the courage to tell anyone about her lapse.

So The Mourning Emporium starts with Teo encountering a Vampire Eel, who winks at her from under the ice that has started to strangle Venice. Instantly, she knows that Bajamonte and all his evil henchcreatures are back – and that this dreadful fact is no-one else’s fault but her own.

I raised Bajamonte from the apparently dead, but regretfully left The Grey Lady buried in the garden of the Venetian archives that this redoubtable cat used to run. But The Grey Lady’s mortality left me free to create a new feline for The Mourning Emporium. This is the equally impudent Sofonisba, the ship’s cat aboard the Scilla, a floating orphanage that will carry my characters from Venice to London and back again. I also ‘disappeared’ The Key to the Secret City, a magical book that delivers Teo into a different world in the first volume. In the sequel, she has to rely on her own wits much more, as becomes a developing character who is nearly 18 months older than she was in book one. I did not, however, get rid of my foulmouthed curry-swilling mermaids. They were the ‘hit’ of the first book, but, even more than that, I simply could not bear to be without them myself.

In planning a sequel, I’d also had to embed the potential for rendering Teo parentless yet again, thus freeing her to disguise herself as boy and join the crew of the Scilla. So, at the end of The Undrowned Child, Teo’s adopted parents are appointed the directors of a new museum of lagoon life. This means that at the beginning of The Mourning Emporium it is easy to stage their kidnapping from the island where they work all hours studying obscure ocean arthropods and their means of locomotion … all of which might make them very useful to a foreign power trying to create a new form of submarine.

It’s vital to avoid a sense of ‘more of the same’ in a sequel. So it can be very useful to move book two on geographically. So half The Mourning Emporium takes place in London – much of it in the street where I live. The change of location also gifted the story with terrifying sea journey, involving mutiny, sorcery, a Colossal Squid and near starvation. (In fact, even within my adult books I actually prefer to take two-city breaks: The Remedy takes a Venetian to London, and a Londoner to Venice. The Book of Human Skin girates between Peru and Venice.)

I wouldn’t enjoy writing for children – just as I couldn’t write for adults – unless the story gave me an issue or a theory to explore. In The Undrowned Child, the twin themes are identity and self-sacrifice. You are, I suggest, what you are prepared to die for. Teo doesn’t know at first that she’s a Venetian, but soon she’s risking her life to save the city. But then, for The Mourning Emporium, I needed a new idea for the old characters, something to test them further, something that would exploit their flaws and their talents to make a dynamic, individual storyline, one that could be lived only by them.

For me, the central idea of The Mourning Emporium is the care and feeding of children – in both the emotional and culinary senses. The book contains two characters who represent the extremes of evil and good in this department. The first is Miss Uish, a sociopathic female who seizes control of the fates of a dozen Venetian orphans, without caring if they live or die. Her counterpart is a London bulldog called Turtledove, who cherishes, adores and spoils his ‘childer’. The whole book, in a sense, builds up to the final and violent encounter between these two characters.

So will there be a sequel to the sequel? Well, there is a third book commissioned but it doesn’t follow directly on The Mourning Emporium. In fact, now I am going fifty years into the past, before some – though not all – of my original cast were born. And herein lies more joy … but that’s another story, and another blog.

Does anyone else have sequel joys or tribulations to share?


Michelle Lovric lives in Venice and London. She’s the author of four adult novels set Venice and an anthology, Venice, Tales of the City. Her third novel, The Remedy, was long-listed for the Orange Prize. Her fourth adult novel, The Book of Human Skin, came out with Bloomsbury in April 2010. Her first novel for 9-12-year-olds, The Undrowned Child, tells what happens when science meets baddened magic in Venice in 1899. Two brave and clever children must save the city from the vengeful spirit of the Traitor, Bajamonte Tiepolo, returned from the dead after 700 years. The Mourning Emporium, the sequel, was published on October 28 and transports us from a frozen Venice to a grieving London, where Queen Victoria lies dying, and a massacre of innocent mourners is the object of a dreadful conspiracy between Bajamonte and an unscrupulous Pretender to the British throne. All that stands between the forces of evil and their success are two Venetian children, a hundred mermaids, a talking bulldog, some pumpkin-sellers and a devastatingly handsome circus master


Michelle Lovric and over fifty other writers appear in City-pick Venice, £8.99 paperback, published by Oxygen Books on 4 November 2010.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

We will remember them

I have been wanting to blog about this for some time and today, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, seems right . I should warn you that this is a more personal post than usual. My daughter is one of the producers of the play based on Sebastian Faulks' best-selling novel. Consequently I have been hearing a lot about this production over a long period of time.

That doesn't mean my critical faculties have been disabled but it does mean that the following account is my own specific take on the venture rather than an outsider view.

The book has many fans and, as I found out when I first told friends about the play, equally vociferous non-fans. I made a point of reading it before going to the première. So I knew what to expect. But somehow that did not protect me from the full force of the depiction of that "hell within a hell" that was the little-known World War One setting of the sappers in the tunnels in acts two and three.

At the end of the play, when the audience spontaneously rose to its feet, I couldn't join them. Not because I didn't agree with their assessment but because I was too distraught. I don't think I have ever shed tears in the theatre before, although I have, being a huge Shakespeare fan living within an hour's drive of Stratford, seen many tragedies.

But it was many minutes before I could recover my composure. What really got to me, in the scene where Stephen is rescued at the last minute by the German soldier and told the war is over, is that the two men embrace and say "Never again." (The soldier is a Jew). I just kept thinking, "Will no-one ever learn? Not only did it happen again, it's happening right now."

Some reviewers have liked the play better than others. Several made allusions to a television series that reminded me of the definition of a cultured person as "someone who can hear the William Tell overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger." I would now change that to "someone who can see depictions of British soldiers going 'over the top" and a field of poppies without referencing Blackadder Goes Forth"!

I still don't know whether what I saw was a play. I wouldn't for example tell someone to read Rachel Wagstaff's playscript, good as it was, in preference to the novel. But I will say it was one of the most powerful theatrical experiences I have ever had. And I thought of it again during the two-minute silence this morning. Stephen Wraysford and Jack Firebrace and all the others are fictional characters but they helped me to remember men I never knew. And I shall not forget them.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Book Trust Teenage Prize

The culmination of, for me, eight months reading, arguing, advocating - in a word, judging - came this week when the winner of the Booktrust Teenage  Prize was announced. This was Gregory Hughes' début novel Unhooking the Moon (Quercus).

Unfortunately for us, Gregory was in Canada at the time of the announcement but his prize was collected for him by Roisin Heycock, the editor of this unusual book. Apparently he wrote it in Iceland in eight months in "a room so small he could touch both ends ... while standing in the middle."

Hughes is English but has spent a lot of time in Canada, where the book begins. It's a "road movie" of a novel in which reliable older brother Bob, accompanies his little sister, "The Rat," on a quest to New York to find their uncle, after their father's sudden death.

They get caught up in petty crime, a virtual kidnap, a paedophile ring and the life of a successful rapper. The book stands or falls through the character of the Rat (real name Marie-Claire) and here Hughes treads a fine line very delicately. Is she an annoying brat or a brilliant, unusual, credible eccentric? Definitely the latter but it's a close thing.

It was a fresh voice on a very varied shortlist encompassing quasi-zombies, centaurs, brutal racism, a pacifist's dilemma and a "girly" book that wasn't remotely pink. And that was just the shortlist. Our longlist also featured some wonderful books, like Marie-Louise Jensen's Daughter of Fire and Ice, Keren David's When I was Joe, Tamsyn Murray's My So-called Afterlife and Mary Hooper's Fallen Grace.

The judging process was fascinating. Five of us: myself, Tony Bradman (Chair), librarian Barbara Band, journalist Barbara Ellen and impressive teenager Claudia Freemantle, faced up to the challenge of reading 120 books submitted by their publishers. At our shortlisting meeting (which was in my opinion far and away the hardest one), we sorted this monumental quantity of YA reading into three piles: Yes, No and Maybe.

The No pile was for unanimous negative response from all five judges. If one of us loved it, it was put in Maybes. It is not breaking any confidences to say that Unhooking the Moon went straight into the Yes pile from the beginning.

Once we had our shortlist - agonising for me because I should have liked our longlist to be our shortlist, if you see what I mean, but we HAD to stop at six - we had to re-read them and were joined in this by four more teenagers, whose ideas I certainly had not predicted. But I must say, if these are our future, the country is in very safe hands. Here's a photo of them with the shortlisted authors who could be present, taken by the official Booktrust photographer:

Claudia is one the far right and the teenager third from left is not a judge but a writer: Isabel Adomakoh Young is half of Zizou Corder, whose Halo was on the shortlist.

As well as lacking the winner, we also missed Marcus Sedgwick, who was on a plane to Switzerland. His Revolver was a shortlisted title. Charlie Higson (The Enemy) is 4th from right, next to Sarra Manning (Nobody's Girl) and Louisa Young (the other half of Zizou Corder). Between Isabel and Louisa is Jason Wallace, another début author with Out of Shadows.

It was a day of celebration but now I have a word of rebuke and it is for the editors of a large proportion of the 120 books we read. This was remarked on by our teenage judges in particular so is not the embittered rant of an older generation stickler! Here, at random, are some of the things I found in published, not proof, copies:

"clashing symbols;" an address printed on the cover different from the one inside the book, "slithers of ice;" a country's Latin motto incorrectly translated; "sight" for "site;" "I sunk into a chair;" "pour over their relationship;" "the baby laid in her buggy" and a definition of "déjà vu" so bizarre that one can only assume neither the writer nor editor knew what it means.

Too numerous to mention were the instances of the "lay" for "lie" confusion and the use of "I" as an object as in, for example "He looked at X and I." And that was just the grammar and vocabulary!

Claire Armitstead, the Literary Editor of the Guardian, had some harsh words for editors recently when judging their First Novel Award and she was talking about content rather than syntax or word-use. Sadly, that was also evident in the books I read. I can honestly say there were some, including by very well-known names, that should not have been published, let alone submitted for an award.

No names, no pack drill but why is this happening? And why does no-one understand that "Wherefore art thou Romeo?' does NOT mean "where are you, Romeo?" but "WHY are you Romeo?" (If Shakespeare had meant "where" he would have said it and added another syllable in the line so as not to bitch the rhythm. That is the speech that contains "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" after all).

Is it that editors don't go on courses any more? Or that proof readers are less capable than they used to be? I can't believe that. Answers, please, in Comments.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

A Tale of Too Many Cities

This is not a comment on the excellent City of Thieves, reviewed below, but a long wail about why so many books are called "City of ...." I have perpetrated five such books myself in the Stravaganza sequence with another to come (City of Swords) in 2012.

But it's not just me. Cassandra Clare has written four so far: City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass and City of Fallen Angels (I'm not sure about the order since I stopped after the first one - Bones, I think.) But John Berendt wrote City of Falling Angels about Venice and Paul Auster's New York trilogy also features a City of Glass.

Confusing, isn't it?

St Augustine wrote City of God so maybe we should blame him.

Anyway, City of Thieves is a very good book and a very good sequel to Castle of Shadows. (It has an equally gorgeous cover, which doesn't reproduce adequately, with gold foil and shiny black birds in full flight against the darkening blue sky.)

At the end of Castle of Shadows, Charlie (Charlotte) has lost her father, found her mother and become Queen of Quale. And she's still only twelve. The new book turns the spotlight more intensely on to Tobias Petch (Toby), Charlie's friend and fellow-adventurer. The two of them thought they had conquered Alistair Windlass, who killed the king, Charlie's father, but turned out to be Toby's own parent.

City of Thieves opens with Toby looking forward to seeing Windlass hanged. And this is just one example of Renner's clear-eyed and uncompromising approach to family. Toby hates his biological father, was horribly beaten by his late stepfather and is horrified by belonging to the Petch family who are all professional thieves. Charlie finds it hard to forgive her mother for her desertion in the first instalment.

But worse complications are to come. Toby's mother helps his father to escape the noose and just when Toby thinks he is going to be able to track the villain down, he is captured by his step-uncle, Zebediah Petch, who wants him to become his apprentice lock-picker, safe-breaker and general burglar.

The sections in which Toby is trained and his will subdued through beatings and other forms of bullying is horribly convincing. And the character of Alistair Windlass - who inevitably comes back into the story - is endlessly fascinating. In Windlass, Renner has created that rare thing in a book for children: a truly morally ambiguous character. He has killed more than once and is limitlessly ambitious (he used to be the country's Prime Minister, after all). But he has some of the qualities of timeless heroes too.

He is as fastidious about his appearance and dress as Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci, as clever in anticipating others' actions as Sherlock Holmes and as ruthless as Che Guevara.

Charlie's mother (the oddly-titled "Dowager Queen" - should be Queen Mother, surely?) is a scientist, a pretty hotshot physicist and chemist, who has accidentally invented a lethal weapon. And it's the plans for that which form the McGuffin of this story - the thing that Windlass must gain at all costs.

But Toby is a bit of a McGuffin himself, wanted equally by Windlass, Zebediah and by Charlie and his other friends at the castle. It's a thrilling read, that keeps you on the edge of your seat till the end but is also full of unexpected aperçus about the nature of monarchy, weapons of mass destruction and political bargaining.

My only beef is that, having put her readers through the wringer, Renner leaves us wanting and waiting for volume three. Please, Orchard Books, tell us it's coming soon! You can even call it City of Something, as long as I can find out what happens to Toby, Charlie and the rest before too long.

Friday, 15 October 2010

People Love Reading or Please Listen - Reconsider

OK, guys; time to take to the streets again. In yesterday's so-called "Bonfire of the Quangos", Culture Minister Ed Vaizey announced the abolition, not of Public Lending Right itself but of the body that administers it and has done so admirably for the last 26 years.

There is so much wrong with this decision that it is hard to know where to begin. I could start by saying that the PLR Office is not a Quango in any meaningful sense. It's not like The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) for example, which decides which drugs to fund or The Audit Commission with investigative powers.

PLR does what it says on the tin: it establishes by the use of rolling samples of borrowings from Public Lending Libraries, how many loans have been made of which titles and recompenses living British authors of those books at a few pence per loan (currently around 6p). No-one says "well that author or that book is more deserving of payment than this.": it's a straightforward computational job.

If you have registered your titles, they qualify, assuming you are eligible in the first place: i.e. you are alive, British and have your name on the title page.

But although the principles are simple, the proportions and percentages have to be agreed among all contributors listed on the title page, the samples have to be carefully taken and the extrapolation done. Amazingly the outstanding current Registrar, Jim Parker, does this with a staff of nine, covering something like 133 million titles

There are surprising results among the most borrowed: J. K. Rowling at 96; Philip Pullman at 221; Bill Bryson at 246. You'd expect them all to be higher, except that their fans probably prefer to buy their books.

Can you imagine that this scheme will be more efficiently or cheaply run by any other body? (currently the rumour is that this function might be taken on by the Arts Council). Any additional costs to set up the running of it differently will come out of the pot of money allocated to writers. Nor could it possibly be "more transparent and accountable". The Registrar is accountable to the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (DCOMS), currently Jeremy Hunt. The loans are listed as transparently as  they can be on every printout made by every registered writer.

This sum of money, received every February is a lifeline for writers at a time of recession when we hear of books cancelled, advances slashed. For many writers PLR is their sole or substantial portion of their income. Writers like the late great Brigid Brophy and other members of the Writers' Action group, fought for a decade to get this payment on the statute books; she would be turning in her grave to see what is happening to it now.

Yes I know the PLR itself has not been abolished - only the Office. But does anyone really believe it will survive after the four years the current agreement has left to run? Please write to your MP, Jeremy Hunt the Secretary of State and Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, urging them to retain the Registrar and the PLR Office.

In hard times, people need to be able to borrow books for free and writers need some compensation every time they do so. 4,000 of us signed the petition; we need the support of all readers. Dust down your old placards and banners or PLR aged 26 will die aged 30.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Last week was about book-banning

Now censorship and book-burning are two different things in the way that eggs and mayonnaise are two different things, so I make no apology for using an image of one to illustrate the other.

The week just finished was "banned books week." Rhiannon Lassiter blogged about it with many useful links
here.

And Lucy Coats wrote bravely and movingly about her own experience of assault here.
It really hit a nerve, as she got 44 comments and numerous private emails and DMs, not to mention over a thousand visits to the blog in a very short period of time.

Such blogposts were inspired by an American Professor's attack on the novel "Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson, published in 1999. It is about the horrible subject of rape and a young woman's reaction to it. I haven't read the book but I will now. Professor Scroggins from Missouri thinks it's pornographic.

This led to widespread Twittering using the hashtags #speakloudly and #bannedbooksweek. In fact I read so many lists of books banned for so many reasons that my head began to reel. My friend Anne Rooney wrote an article in New Hunanist here. 

In it she writes about a children's book illustration of a female anthropomorphised mouse who was sitting with her hands in her (clothed) lap. It had to go because someone thought the mouse might be seen as masturbating!

Has the world gone mad?

I have experienced some censorship in my time. In a non-fiction series about animals, illustration by photographs there was one slide of an elephant which the US publisher wanted us to change because it showed the bull's penis. It was so gigantic none of us - five of us looked at the slides together - had noticed it, thinking it was a leg!

Just in case you think these things always originate in the USA, I also had a book banned from Islington libraries once. It was a picture book called Nancy No-Size and the librarian objected to a page in which three siblings compare skin colour in a bath and the text reads "she wasn't dark like her big sister and she wasn't fair like her baby brother. So she wasn't dark and she wasn't light: she was no colour at all." (I quote from memory but am no expert on the books of Mary Hoffman).

Taken out of context, it looks bad but a/ it was about a mixed race family, like mine and b/had been preceded by pages in which Nancy thought she was 'no size at all"and "No age at all" because she was a middle child: equally nonsensical statements.

Actually everything in this story came from my own family. It was dedicated to my middle daughter of three, who was sometimes one of the two big girls and sometimes one of the two little ones. My girls had two female cousins with whom they shared a bath on visits, who were the same racial mix as them. One was dark like them; the other fair like her red-headed English father. They would compare skin tones and comment on them.

I was banned for "racism" but I think it would have been more racist to leave out skin colour in a book about finding your place in the family when you are not sure if you are short or tall, old or young.

Anyway, it's not pleasant to be banned and criticised for something the opposite of your intentions in writing a book and I feel for Halse Anderson. But I thank Professor Scroggins for drawing my, and many other people's, attention to her book.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Why Waterstone's has done the right thing

I just heard through my Bookseller Bulletin that Waterstone's Piccadilly has opened a separate section for teen books. You can read more here: 
http://bit.ly/943Ykp

What a brilliant move, I thought, and then, "why hasn't it been done before?" If you think of teen books as Young Adult, you can see straightaway that the emphasis should be on the "adult" rather than the "young."

No self-respecting 13-year-old and up wants to be seen in the Children's section amid the picture books and novelties. Better by far to have their own section, which will also include books written for adults but thought to have teen appeal.

So three cheers for Waterstone's and may all book shops with enough space follow suit.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Grabbing the ones in the middle

In any literate culture you will find people who love books. The bookworms are a given, across history and geography, and I bless them every day. They read, re-read, write passionate emails to their favourite authors and sometimes even fan fiction. They use libraries but books, new and secondhand, borrow recommended titles from friends and some of them review their favourites on blogs.

They may have learned to read early or late, through reading schemes, real books, or newspaper headlines (as I did). They are not bothered about whether the books come in paper or electronic form and might well own both.

This post is not about readers like them.

Then there are and always will be a whole group of people who, for whatever reason, don't read books. Some can't read but that's not usually the main reason. They will read newspapers and magazine perhaps but never a book. One is Victoria Beckham.

I'm not really talking about them either.

Then in the middle there is a huge third group who are not avid readers nor non-readers and those are the ones I want to get hold of and influence. Preferably while they are still children.

The world is so full of wonderful books and all it takes to get someone hooked on this huge lifelong pastime or passion is introducing them to the right book at the right time. Traditionally this has been done by parents, teachers and librarians. And for the last very many years by writers going into schools.

But libraries are closing, School Library Services are under threat and schools budgets are so tight that many author visits that might once have taken place will just not happen. What will happen to "the ones in the middle" then?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Books are like ice-cream

A couple of days ago I was idly semi-listening to Radio 4's The Food Programme. It was about ice-cream.

Now, I don't consume much of the stuff, except when in Italy, because I rather not have any at all than have poor quality. This is NOT how books are like ice-cream, because I have to be reading something all the time, even if it's rubbish. Even if it's train time-tables or ketchup labels. There are lots of people like me - logophiles? Anyway, addicts of the written word (and the spoken, come to that).

Ice-cream comes in lots of flavours but I have my favourites - coffee, gianduia, nocciolato to name but three. But that's still NOT how books are like ice-cream, because although I have my favourite writers and genres, I like a wider range of kinds of book than I do of ice-cream flavours.

No, what caught my attention was that big companies like W***s will give retailers a freezer in which to display ice-cream in but then the shopkeeper is obliged to stock a hefty percentage of the supplier's products in that freezer.

That made me think about the kinds of promotion that publishers pay booksellers for - inclusion in the Books for Giving Christmas catalogue, table position, window displays. Isn't it a bit similar?

OK, the ice-cream manufacturers are giving something away and the publishers are paying but the end result is the same: the customer buys what they see.

Now there might be gorgeous ice-cream made in the traditional style by Yum Yum Cottage*, on a farm with Jersey cows and soft fruit picked from a poly-tunnel that morning, but what are the chances of finding Yum Yum Cottage ice-cream in enough shop freezers, in the limited space allowed by Messrs W***s** et. al. and competed for by everyone else to make that a known brand?

What are the answers? Yum Yum can't afford to hand out free freezers any more than small publishers can afford to pay the promotional prices asked by bookshops. Nor can big publishers afford to pay the "added value" mark-up on every title they publish. I heard over ten years ago from a major publisher who did not want to be quoted that this could amount to £1 per copy.

Please suggest answers in comments.

What I can tell you is that the result is the same. People buy what they see and what they have heard of even what they can't see and haven't heard of may be better. You can't blame them. Just think of the best-selling ice-creams in the country and compare the flavour, ingredients, appearance with that of any really good ice-cream you have ever tasted (e,g. Brivido on Nanni's in Siena or Vivoli or Festival in Florence) and reflect.

Now think of the best-selling books. THAT is how books are like ice-cream.


* Fictional brand
**Not fictional brand

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The knives are out



Today the Booktrust Teenage Prize shortlist was announced. See http://tinyurl.com/32j8wlp Oh and some other literary prize put out its shortlist too but we needn't concern ourselves with that.


Coincidentally I can review the two teenage books here because they are in next year's judging period, when someone else will take over my duties on the panel. 


You might think "Oh no, not more knife crime books!" but I urge you to think again. Yes, there have been a lot of those books about and one of them was the precursor to one of those reviewed here.


Anthony McGowan's The Knife that Killed me was on the Guardian shortlist and I don't need to tell you just how many prizes Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go has won.

Dead Boy Talking by Linda Strachan and Almost True by Keren David are both strong books with striking covers. The title of the first makes its point economically and the second is the sequel to When I was Joe, which is on the shortlist for the North East Teenage Book Award. Strachan's earlier title for Strident, the equally disturbing Spider, was also shortlisted for a prize - the Red Award, appropriately enough! (Though that one was about "twocking" not knife crime).

Actually neither of these new books is about knife crime; they are about the experiences of one main character caught up in circumstances that have been made a lot more dangerous by the presence of knives.

Dead Boy Talking opens: "In 25 minutes I will be dead  .... they say it takes about 25 minutes to bleed to death." It takes a little longer to read the book but not much as its breathless style and urgent plot make you read quickly, eager to find out how it ends. And it's only 168 pages long.

We know from the beginning that Josh has been stabbed, the day after accidentally knifing his old friend Ranj. No spoilers in telling you that. The story unwinds quickly in alternating chapters of third person narrative flashback interleaved with even shorter italicised chapters showing Josh's present rapidly-changing situation. (So there are similarities to Anthony McGowan's book). But - and here IS a spoiler - the ending does validate the title, though Strachan gives us some hope at the very end too.

It is a powerful and disturbing book that just might save a reader's life.

Almost True is almost a stand-alone but a reader would get much more from it after reading When I was Joe. For newbies, the hero is not called Joe, though he is sometimes thus referred to among other names. He has reverted to Ty, his real name before he and his mum entered the witness protection programme, after Ty witnessed a stabbing in the park.

As the two books have developed we know there was more to Ty's involvement than he at first admitted and although he is a witness he might also be charged. The book opens with a chapter I had already read because it was (to me annoyingly) printed at the end of the first book. So I knew that mum, Nicki, has just seen her new boyfriend shot in mistake for her son. The witness protection isn't working too well.


This is a much longer book - 437 pages - and is less focussed on the one central incident. Ty has a lot of adventures, both connected with the first book and new ones. One of the book's strengths is that both his very flawed parents are fully realised as are many supporting characters - something you don't always get in an "issue-based" title.

There is hardly any of the gansta talk that marred the first book for me, though there is a bit too much about Twilight, which will surely date it? (And I'm a bit disappointed that Claire, Ty's love interest and a strong character in her own right, likes it so much!)

But these are minor blemishes. You do care very much what happens to Ty and his family because David makes you care. And that is surely the mark of a compelling writer.


Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Edinburgh Book Festival

If I ever stop sneezing and coughing long enough to get up from my sickbed and pack, I'll be off to Edinburgh on Friday for the Book Festival. My event is on Saturday, by which time I hope to have a voice. I've even made a PowerPoint presentation.

But what I'm really looking forward to is other people's events. On Friday night we are going to the London Review of Books on "The Future of the Book" -  an old warhorse which has gained some shiny new e-spurs recently.

And Saturday pm there's James Shapiro talking about his latest Shakespeare book, Contested Will. His previous book, 1599, was absolutely excellent, so I'm hopeful. There's a clash with my timings which means I can't get to Nicola Morgan's session but I hope to meet her in the Yurt. Ah, the Yurt! Worthy of a whole post in its own right.

It's a tent where writers, their partners and publicists can drink coffee or beer or whisky and eat sandwiches or buns and I am relying on it for Saturday sustenance. But it is so much more than a tent - more of a Bedouin mirage in the middle of Charlotte Square. It's one of the few places in the world where you feel you are living the writer's life that non-writers believe goes on every day.

In the evening it's Michelle Lovric and Katie Hickman on "Fictionalising Venice" - something I have been known to do myself from time to time. I don't know Katie Hickman's book but have read Michelle's absolutely remarkable The Book of Human Skin.

I'm sure there are all sorts of other delights I'll be missing but after two nights in an Edinburgh hotel, we're decamping to Linda Strachan's house. Then home via York, where we'll visit Shandy Hall. Now there was a writer whose festival sessions I'd have paid good money to attend.

And I think Laurence Sterne would have felt right at home in that yurt.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Just one more and then I'll shut up about it

How many agents does it take to launch a paperback?

Or it's my party and I'll smile if I want to.

In this picture, three from Rogers, Coleridge and White. Patricia White, on right, has been my agent for over 25 years and we are good mates.

Next to her, her assistant Claire Wilson, then moi, then Catherine Pellegrino, who is also at RCW. They all came to support me at Bloomsbury for the launch party of the Troubadour paperback.

It was a very nice party and I wish I had remembered earlier that I had my camera with me. Then I could have shown you my editor Emma Matthewson, who made a very nice speech and has edited all seven novels so far that I have written for Bloomsbury, Ian lamb, who organised the party and all my publicity and Susannah Nuckey, head of Children's Marketing, who surprised me with the lovely poster that has Troubadour on one side and all the Stravaganzas on the back.

So you just have to imagine those guys. And the lovely librarians, booksellers, journalists and book bloggers who came. Not to mention my family, who put up a good showing.

Normal non self-promotional service will be resumed in the next post - till another book comes out!

Monday, 2 August 2010

Troubadour giveaway

The paperback edition of my historical novel Troubadour comes out in the UK tomorrow with this rather gorgeous image on the jacket.

Bloomsbury are kindly offering ten free copies, which I shall sign, to the first ten people to comment on this blog. UK only I'm afraid and you do have to be a Follower.

If you don't score one, or even if you do, you can get a rather fine poster of the jacket, with all the Stravaganzas on the other side from susannah.nuckey@bloomsbury.com

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Sentenced to read

For nearly twenty years a scheme has been quietly growing in the US called "changing lives through literature." You can read about it at www.cltl.umassd.edu

The Guardian ran a piece about it recently:
http://tinyurl.com/34wmb46

 It offers those who have repeatedly committed crimes the alternative to a prison sentence: they can instead join a reading group and discuss books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. Robert Waxler, whose original idea it was, reports a high success rate in terms of low percentages of re-offending.


What a splendid, humane initiative!


It just reinforces what we all know: that books really do make a difference. But I do wonder what it means for those who join reading groups voluntarily. If it can prevent people from re-offending what can it do for those who have never offended? Answers on a postcard please.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Infamous Five: it's all very strange

Not for the first time, publishers are tinkering with Enid Blyton's texts, to bring them this time into the 21st century.

Here is the link to the Guardian's coverage and Zoe Williams' comment:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/23/enid-blyton-famous-five-makeover

My question is: why bother?

There are so many better writers for children who have been at work in the last sixty years that to faff about changing "fellow" to "old man" and "it's all very peculiar" to "it's all very strange" seems like a perverse rearranging of the literary deck chairs on a recession- hit publishing Titanic heading towards a very big iceberg with "e-books" written on it.

As a child I read everything by Enid Blyton that I could get hold of; in fact I probably learned to read IN ORDER to read her. (After the age of seven I had the added incentive that my appendix had been taken out by her husband and he had given me her autograph).

Ah, that autograph! (see above). Probably one of the first, along with Captain W.E.Johns) examples in publishing of brand recognition. And she is still one of the top ten children's writers being borrowed from libraries - at least partly on the strength of it.

But what did she mean to me once I had left childhood behind? I felt no guilty affection as I did for J.R.R.Tolkien or happy nostalgia as I did for Gwyneth Rae (author of my favourite Mary Plain books about the little bear from Bern). Nothing but boredom and embarrassment.

I don't want to ban her and of course it's wonderful that lots of children (including me) have in the past been turned on to reading by her books. But I think it's time quietly to let Enid Blyton die a natural death. No amount of tinkering will make her read like a writer writing today and she just isn't that good.

Let them read Holes, I say, and the wealth of other excellent writers that awaits them. As for Enid, it's time the Famous Five Went on a Very Long Holiday.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Break in service

Aaargh! Sorry for the gap in blogposts. My computer, a MacBook Air, died suddenly aged 2 years and 11 months. Have bought a new one and a 3-year warranty!

So I'll be back in business soon.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Football on and off the page

Well, I had been waiting for the latest Terry Pratchett Discworld novel to become a paperback, with some trepidation. It's about football, you see, which doesn't interest me at all. But I've read all the other Discworlds and we were at the airport about to fly to Italy for two weeks' holiday and there it was in WHSmith, Heathrow Terminal Five.

And my holiday reading had needed to include three books to be read for the Booktrust Teenage Book Prize, so a bit of distraction was deserved.

Then there was the World Cup. We were on holiday with a daughter who was quite interested and her partner, who was very, there was  Satellite TV at our apartment and it rained quite a bit the first week. So real life football was had.

I remembered that what occurs in my novels is not necessarily what they are about so started Unseen Academicals. It's not really vintage Discworld, not up there with Reaper Man, Guards, Guards or Witches Abroad. Not even as good as Going Postal, which had a very successful TV version last month.

But it was very acceptable and the football wasn't a problem. I suppose as usual it's partly about tolerance and doing the right thing and also about teaching baddies a lesson - though I didn't like how that was done this time. And there are some good jokes.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The curse of the sequel

I am about to go to Italy for two weeks - a holiday, yay!
But also research for Stravaganza: City of Swords in Lucca and David in Carrara and Settignano. Tax deductible, as always.

Anyway, one of my pre-leaving jobs is always "answer fanmail" and TWO people had written on the same date, from different countries to ask if I would write a sequel to The Falconer's Knot.

Now, I am very fond of The Falconer's Knot. It was my first "proper" historical novel, commissioned by Bloomsbury, shortlisted for the Guardian Prize, winner of the French Prix Polar Jeunesse and now shortlisted for another French prize (it is called "Rouge Crime" in France).

But it is complete in itself. There are, if I remember rightly, five murders, the culprit(s) revealed and two couples get together (OK three if you are being technical). What could a sequel possibly be about?

It's OK when a book has been conceived as a trilogy or longer sequence but tacking on "book two" as an afterthought is something that happens far too often, IMO. Same with films: did we really need Back to the Future 2 and 3, when the original film had a well-crafted plot and satisfactory ending?

And I'm QUITE sure we don't need Avatar 2, even though we are going to get it. Fans and sometimes publishers are very keen on sequels but they sell less well, get fewer foreign editions, are not so often shortlisted for prizes and certainly get fewer reviews than their originals.

So, no guys, I am NOT planning a sequel to The Falconer's Knot!

Back after the holidays

Monday, 7 June 2010

Salome on a doughnut

This was one of my mother's more incomprehensible expressions - used, I think, to mean something overdressed. She would not have been able to use it about the Oxford Playhouse version of Oscar Wilde's play, Salome, I saw last Friday.

It is possibly unstageable. I read it as a teenager, which is when when should read all those decadents like Huysmans and Wilde and look at Aubrey Beardsley's magnificently over-the-top illustrations and pine for a life that is gloriously fin-de-siecle.

It is the basis of Richard Strauss's fine impressionist opera of the same name, where you would certainly learn that the name was pronounced SAHlomay and not, as in my mother's phrase SahLOHmee.

Wilde wrote it in French and got his boyfriend, "Bosie", to translate it into English but Lord Alfred Douglas wasn't quite up to it and Wilde had to tidy up his version. It is very rarely performed.

So husband and I took the chance to see both the play and the opera in subsequent months and have been to see the play. A sign in the foyer said in contained "Adult themes". I wanted to cross out "adult" and substitute 'puerile" in marker pen on the way out.

For yes, you've guessed it, the production was of the "pee, po, belly, bum, drawers" school immortalised in Flanders and Swann's "Let's talk rude" or, in this case "let's act rude." Will blogger let me say it was a w***fest? Am putting asterisks in case it won't.

Let's get one thing clear: I was not shocked. I was BORED! I never again want to see on the stage the manic crotch-grabbing, groin-thrusting, unimaginative "business" that passes for a directorial vision in so much theatre. For goodness' sake, Salome, who is supposed to be a fifteen year old virgin, sticks her fingers inside her knickers and gives them to the chained prophet, Jokanaan, to sniff! He meanwhile writhes in frustration.

There is a difference between erotic and pornographic, between suggestion and in-your-face (literally I'm afraid) explicitness.  The modern dress, which was combat fatigues for everyone except Herodias, meant you couldn't tell who was a Jew, who a Syrian. If there had been an interval, I would have left during it.

Roll on July when nothing can spoil the divine music of Richard Strauss's version. And if the dance of the seven veils is performed by a bottom-wiggling tart with a removable bikini under her fatigues, I can at least close my eyes and hear something subtle and nuanced by someone who, like Oscar Wilde, understood the difference between decadence as an art movement and the sleaze of a provincial lap-dancing club.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Walker Canongate YA books


In an inspired new venture, two independent publishers have got together to produce the best of adult books that they think teenagers would enjoy. A sort of reverse crossover, if you like.

I've read two out of the four launch titles and think they've made some really good choices.

Not only did The Life of Pi win the Booker Prize, it's an enjoyable, reasonably challenging read and a good introduction to the idea of the "unreliable narrator."

And Niccolò Ammaniti's I'm Not Scared is a terrific choice. I haven't read the Canongate translation but "Io non ho paura" was a set book on my Italian Literature course a few years back and I also saw the very good film made of it.  I think it's Ammaniti's best book - possibly even the best book he'll ever write.

Four titles will be released in July this year, the other two being Kelly Link's Pretty Monsters and Matt Haig's The Radleys, with new covers like the ones above. It will be interesting to see how they go down with a new audience.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Why I can't review YA books for six months

It's been killing me not to tell you but I am one of the judges for the Booktrust Teenage Book Prize this year. In a funny kind of way, I have become Neil Gaiman. He won last year's prize with The Graveyard Book (Bloomsbury) and it's traditional (as on the Guardian Award) to invite one year's winner to be next year's judge. But since the great Neil lives in the USA, this is not practical (think of the expenses claims for attending judges' meetings) so I'm deeply flattered that they have asked me to stand in.

BUT! Firstly I have to read and absolutely ginormous number of titles before I go on holiday mid-June (yes I know that's in three and a half weeks - eek! But I have been reading for weeks; it took rather a long time for the judges to be announced). Worse, for me is that my hands are tied when it comes to blogging about individual YA titles if they are on the list submitted by publishers.

And there are books I'm dying to talk about.

The Chair of the judges is Tony Bradman and the other judges are journalist Barbara Ellen, librarian Barbara Band and a teenager Claudia Freemantle. Once we have a shortlist we will be joined by four more teenage judges and I shall find all their views most interesting. I have a hunch there will be a core of titles both age groups enjoy but another tranche that is liked more by one lot than the other.

And the agony is I won't be able to say a word about it! Ah well, after November 1st I'll be free to talk about YA fiction as much as I like.

Meanwhile I'll have to try to look a lot more like this chap on the right. It's going to be a tough call. I just hope some of his stardust rubs off on me. (See what I did there?)

Just hope it's not the graveyard slot.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Fan fiction - flattery or theft?

There has been a lot of blogging recently about fan fiction. If you don't write or read fantasy, Science Fiction or series, this phenomenon might have passed you by.

I came across it first when my daughter Rhiannon Lassiter was reading Anne Rice about fifteen years ago. The Internet was in its early stages then but she found a group of like-minded virtual friends, several of whom wrote stories using the characters and settings of Rice's Vampire novels.

It seemed harmless enough. But not to Anne Rice. In 2007, she issued this statement:

"I do not allow fan fiction. The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters. I advise my readers to write your own original stories with your own characters.

It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes."

(You can read more about what followed here: http://www.angelfire.com/rant/croatoan)

Now Diana Gabaldon, author of the bestselling Outlander series, is taking a similar line:

"OK, my position on fan-fic is pretty clear: I think it’s immoral, I _know_ it’s illegal, and it makes me want to barf whenever I’ve inadvertently encountered some of it involving my characters."
Gabaldon's post here: http://voyagesoftheartemis.blogspot.com/2010/05/fan-fiction-and-moral-conundrums.html

received over six hundred comments in a less than a week.
A more emollient post followed the next day http://voyagesoftheartemis.blogspot.com/2010/05/fan-fic-ii.html
and received over five hundred comments.

As you can see, this subject arouses strong feelings. But not all authors feel the same as Rice and Gabaldon. In 2004 a spokesperson for J K Rowlng's literary agent said she was   
 "flattered people wanted to write their own stories" based on her characters. (But this did not extend to allowing the publication in 2007 of a  Harry Potter Lexicon by Steve Vander Ark. Joanne Rowling and Warner Brothers won a court case in 2008 prohibiting publication).

Stephenie Meyer seems so far pretty relaxed about Twilight fanfic, even providing links to it on her website. (Some people have cruelly compared her own style to that of fanfic writers)

The major place to find this type of writing is www.fanfiction.net I might be flattered to have 78 Stravaganza fanfics going on were it not that Harry Potter and Twilight ones run into hundreds of thousands of stories!

I did start to read them in the early days but found when I was writing the next novel in my own sequence that I was actually writing pastiche Mary Hoffman, influenced by what I read. So I don't read them any more. But I'm very happy for them to exist, as long as I get a credit and the writers make no money out of them.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Nicola Morgan's May Day guest post


This is a picture of fabulous YA novelist and uber-blogger Nicola Morgan looking very relaxed, which currently she is not. Not content with these roles, Nicola decided to move house - twice - within weeks and, oh yes, do a blog tour to launch her new book Wasted. And while she was about it, set up a new website to go with it for good measure.

You can read about both below but it I'm thinking it will be a long time before our guest blogger looks this relaxed again. Good luck with it all, Nicola, and welcome


Huge thanks to Mary for inviting me over to her esteemed blog. I’m trying to write something different for each stop-over on my blog tour and since today is May 1st I have a special May Day inspired thought.

Actually, it’s a Walpurgis Night / Beltane thought, because last night, April 30th, was Walpurgis Night. The only reason I know anything at all about this is that I was doing an after-dinner talk at the Scottish Arts Club and therefore had to look it up. Clearly, I am writing this post in advance of that event but, since Walp Night is characterised by noise and alcohol, I predict a headache this morning. From the noise, of course. Also, by chance (because most of our lives are ruled by chance), I recently moved house to Calton Hill in Edinburgh, not realising that Walpurgis Night is marked on Calton Hill by the Beltane all-night shenanigans, which involve a lot of noise, bonfires and alcohol, apparently. So, what with my talk and the Beltane bedlam, I won’t have had much sleep at all. *nurses head*

Anyway, back to the point. Walpurgis Night is, in case you know as little as I did, the dancing partner to Halloween. Diametrically opposite end of the year and signifying the last chance for evil spirits and witches to do their worst before May Day heralds light, warmth and summer. Because I’m a writer who loves the dark side, I like to think of this night as nastier, scarier and more potently evil than Halloween: the spirits have been gorging themselves on dark power all winter, and are fat on it, strong, huge and monstrous, and Walpurgis Night is their final chance to cause mayhem. So, May Day is celebrated to contrast this darkness – it heralds the triumph of good over evil, light over dark, warmth over cold. The Winter Queen dies, icicles melt, cold hearts thaw, shadows are swept back. And of course, summer begins. (Despite the fact that we’ll probably have rain…)

But I want to relate this to the power of fiction. All this about ghosts, demons and forces of evil, witches, spells and incantations, the idea that spirits can slip through the cracks between two worlds: we don’t believe this now, do we? We’re rational, scientific minds, who know that the laws of nature rule us, not spirits. And yet…  And yet, even the most rational people (and I am one) can’t help feeling that there just could be something else. Or even if we don’t really think that, we are capable of doing the “what if?” thought-experiment.

So, writers have the power to stop rational people being fully rational. We try to make our readers fly with us, be transported, hearts and minds, into a world they know does not “really” exist. That word “transported” is interesting, too. I’m fascinated by the theory of narrative transportation – the phrase used by psychologists to describe the state that readers of fiction enter when they take on the emotions, fears and desires of the fictional character and are transported into the fictional world. (There’s a great article here, if you’re interested: http://pragmasynesi.wordpress.com/2008/09/24/the-secrets-of-storytelling-why-we-love-a-good-yarn/)

It doesn’t always happen, but it’s what we aim for as writers. The full suspension of disbelief, but a whole load more, something more mysterious than that.

In Wasted, the book I’m supposed to be talking about on this tour  - slapped wrist for author not mentioning her own book at every opportunity! – there’s a scene where the characters are forced to suspend their own disbelief in supernatural powers. Jack and Jess, while escaping from a knife-wielding boy, take refuge in a fortune-teller’s tent and pretend they want a reading. Fantastic Farantella is not very convincing and her “crystal ball” is a cheapo, plastic, battery-operated one from a bargain shop. And Jack and Jess are not silly enough to believe in this stuff anyway. But something happens and suddenly the mood changes, very suddenly. The characters, the reader, and the writer are suddenly not sure what’s real.

“And into this unlikely setting a sinister spirit enters.” It stops Jack and Jess laughing. It’s how I could feel in an old house in the middle of the night – I don’t believe in ghosts, and yet something has made my neck crawl and make me wish I was anywhere but there. You can refuse to believe in spirits but you still feel their eyes on your back.

Shortly afterwards: “A small noise slips from [Farantella’s] mouth. Or the noise could come from somewhere else – it is hard to say. It is the noise a spirit would make. If such things existed. It is the noise the future would make, if it squeezed through a gap in the skin of time.”

I love this about us: readers and writer are all in it together, our minds meeting in the pages of a book, in a made-up world. The conflict between knowledge and intuition, mind and heart, cortex and limbic system. The suspension of disbelief. The horrible power of the one small question, “Yes, but, what if?”

Wasted asks that question. And tries to offer some answers. You may have different answers – do tell!

Please visit the Wasted blog at www.talkaboutwasted.blogspot.com  Today I’m talking about Schrödinger’s Cat and, honestly, if you think novelists must have wild imaginations that’s nothing compared to scientists who can try to make you believe that a cat can be alive and dead simultaneously … Now that is unbelievable.


Copyright © Nicola Morgan 2010

A bit about the Book Maven's guest

Nicola Morgan is an award-winning author for teenagers, with successful titles such as Fleshmarket, Deathwatch, Blame My Brain and Sleepwalking. She prefers to forget that she also used to write Thomas the Tank Engine Books... When she's not writing, she loves speaking in schools, and at festivals and conferences in the UK and Europe,  She also enjoys messing around on Twitter or her blogs. Nicola blogs for writers at www.helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Watch this space on 1st May!

On 1st May there will be a guest post here from Nicola Morgan, whose latest book Wasted is garnering good reviews everywhere online. Nicola is a champion and marathon blogger, who in addition to running the marvellous Help I Need a Publisher blog (link on the right hand side) and the Pen2Publication critiquing site, has started a new blog for her new book: http://www.talkaboutwasted.blogspot.com

In spite of all this time this must take, Nicola is doing various guest blogs as part of a virtual book tour to launch Wasted and, on The Book Maven, she will be talking about points in the year, such as May 1st (or Beltane or Walpurgis Night) when we might realise how superstitious many of us are.

This is very relevant topic in relation to Wasted where hero Jack believes very much in deciding one's fate by the toss of a coin. Most of the time he does this by "making sacrifices" to ward off bad luck.

So don't miss it. Drop by on 1st May. It's a Saturday and I'll post it as soon as I get up. And I won't toss a coin about whether to or not. It would be really bad luck to miss this one.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Nosy Crow goes digital

Nosy Crow is the name of the new children's publishing house set up by Kate Wilson and Camilla Reid. I met Kate in Bologna to talk about the new venture, an ambitious one in the current climate and she was full of enthusiasm for the content of the new list and the innovations they were planning about getting that content to readers.

It was too soon to talk about details then but Nosy Crow have just  appointed a Digital Product Director, Deb Gaffin, who says she's excited to be in at the beginning of a company that's "thinking of digital from the beginning."

She has recently moved to London from New York and has 19 years' experience of interactive media. Nosy Crow hopes to make many of its books available as Apps, something I'm keen to find out about as the new owner of an iPhone.

They've acquired rights to 3 interactive games "with embedded stories" by Nikalas Catlow and Tim Wesson; the first, Animal SnApp: Farm, will be available in September of this year. Also in September will come the first of three inteactive fairy tales: The Three Little Pigs by Edward Bryan.

So watch this space.





You can see why Kate and Camilla were looking so happy at the Book Fair!

Friday, 9 April 2010

The Triumph of Athene



Well the results of my “Favourite Olympians” poll are now in and I asked Lucy Coats to comment on them. Lucy is as much of a mythographer as I am and her books of Greek myths re-told as by the storyteller Atticus are coming out all this year from Orion in a positively Olympian dozen. The first four came out in February and the second four will be out in May. The Greek Beasts and Heroes set will be completed in August. That’s a lot of books and stories in one year.

Here’s a bit about Lucy: She was brought up in Hampshire on a wild strawberry farm, overrun by dogs, pheasants, and wildlife. She also had a pet bantam which rode to school on the back of the car seat. After surviving a boarding school education and a Scottish university degree course in English and Ancient History, Lucy started work as a publisher’s editor, latterly working in New York.
She married Richard in 1989, and retired from publishing to have babies and write. Her first picture book was published in 1992 and in 2004 she was shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Award. Lucy has now written more than 25 books, including the Greek Beasts and Heroes series, and she blogs at http://scribblecitycentral.blogspot.com, which has just been shortlisted for the Author Blog Awards. She lives with her husband deep in the Northamptonshire countryside, surrounded by cows, sheep, horses, owls, foxes, three lunatic dogs, two wonderful children and a large and demanding garden.


Book Maven: What did you think of the poll results, Lucy?

Lucy Coats: I found the results of the Olympians poll fascinating, and it’s set me thinking about why I like or dislike certain gods and goddesses. Zeus and Hera are bottom of the poll with 1 vote each—and yet they are King and Queen of the gods. Perhaps it’s that aura of untouchable all-powerfulness which people find offputting. Why vote for someone who has it all anyway? And yet, as you said youirself, Mary, they are necessary underpinnings for the whole canon of Greek myth.

Zeus’s serial philandering (morally reprehensible, maybe) has given us both his immortal and demi-god children. Would I truly wish him to be a faithful husband, and thus be without, say, Aphrodite (no lovers or Trojan War stories, then) or Perseus (no Medusa tales) or Heracles (no Tasks)? Hera’s vindictiveness towards Zeus’s conquests (and to his offspring) is unpleasant—but can I say that, in the same situation, I might not have had a vengeful thought or two? Definitely no to both.

BM: I know; it’s like the eternal conundrum of whether writers would have given us such masterpieces if they had lived happier lives. Should we wish that Dickens hadn’t worked in the blacking factory or should we just be grateful for David Copperfield? Any surprises in the votes?

LC: I was surprised that Aphrodite languished beside Hephaestus and Ares until the very last minute. Are we all jealous of her beauty? Or is it perhaps that her meddling in the lives of Paris and Helen—leading to the Trojan War—is unforgiveable? I feel that in that case she was only true to her nature, and really, the whole thing was set off by discontented Eris and her wretched apple anyway. As for Hephaestus, well, I rather like him. At least he got his hands properly dirty with all that smith work—and he had a pretty rotten start in life (Hera again, chucking him down to earth and crippling him). His inventions were amazing—and I’ve always wanted one of his trundling magical food trolleys. Ares—well, personally I would have put him lowest of the low. Apart from the problem I have with war anyway, he was a coward who whimpered with fear when he had even the smallest wound. If you’re going to set heroes fighting—let alone the rank and file troops—then at least have the decency to set them a heroic example.

BM: So those were the ones with the fewest votes. What about the good solid middle-rankers?

LC: Demeter, Apollo and Hermes are the mid-rankers. Demeter lost her daughter—as a mother I have to sympathise with that, and as one who suffers with depression, I can understand that long slide into a cheerless winter. As a gardener and cook I also identify with her as goddess of plenty. I am subliminally grateful to her every time I pick a bean or a tomato—or currently my exquisite purple sprouting broccoli.
The thing I find hardest to stomach about Apollo is his murder of the original priestesses of Delphi, and his wholesale stealing of their cult. Because that’s what the ‘Arrows of the Sun’ story is all about. I don’t like it when matriarchal societies are trampled—that’s the feminist in me coming out. Hermes was the one I voted for. It’s that pure cheekiness and effrontery about him which I love—and the story where he steals Apollo’s cows when he is only a baby makes me laugh every time. I just think he’d be the most fun to be with—but then I’ve always been on the side of the bad boys and the rebels!

BM: I love that: the rebel who grows broccoli! Now what about winners?

LC: The top four are a less surprising mix, though I would not necessarily have guessed that Poseidon would be up there. He was beastly to Odysseus because of Troy, but really, it wasn’t just Odysseus who brought about its downfall. I’ve always thought that Poseidon was over harsh in that particular case. I am also scared of the sea—I don’t want to go out further than I can touch—so he was never going to be my favourite.

BM: You learn on sorts of things in the blogosphere! So the intrepid Lucy is scared of deep water. Me, I have vertigo, so would not do well on Olympus.

LC: I should be fond of Dionysus—he invented red wine, which is a thing without which I would find life a lot less pleasurable. But somehow all those maenads put me off. I’ve just read Philip Womack’s The Liberators which brings them rather terrifyingly into the modern world, and I hate what they did to poor Orpheus in Dionysus’s name—hadn’t the man suffered enough already?

BM: You know in the end I voted for Dionysus, even though he did get 8 other votes. I thought no-one would choose him and I have a soft spot for him because he rescued Ariadne after Theseus was so vile to her.

LC: Being subject to the moon as all women are gives second-placed Artemis a special spot in my heart. She is mystery incarnate, the virgin huntress, and in her are echoed Kerridwen and Astarte and all the other goddesses of the night. Pure, simple, direct—and I have no problem with her hunting, which seems to me to be a responsible act and not at all a thing of bloodlust and savagery. Apologies to you as a vegetarian here, Mary, but I think that if we carnivores took the same responsibility for our food today—acknowledged, honoured and gave thanks that a breathing creature has given its life to feed us—then there might be a lot less cruelty to and ignorance about animals in the world. I also like the eternal rebirth of Artemis’s quarry—there is something very beautiful to me in the stories where, at that awful moment of the arrow in the throat, the silver spirit of the stag rises up and lives again.

BM: I love Artemis too and nearly voted for her. I question slightly that “has given its life,” though I think “has had its life taken away” would be more accurate, unless ione is thinking of the obliging cow in The Restaurant at the end of the Universe, but I take your point.

And now, big drum roll ... the winner!

LC: So, finally, to Athene, whom everyone apparently loves. I was torn, I must confess, between her and Hermes. I do find it interesting that the top two are virgin goddesses. What does that say about us? Do we like the ‘good girls’ better than the ‘good-time girls’? As a writer, of course, the goddess of wisdom is always going to be high up in my pantheon. But what I really like about Athene is her calm. She is very restful in my opinion—which the quicksilver, darting Artemis is not. I feel that she is a goddess I could sit down and have a long conversation with—that she could be a friend.

BM: So that’s an invitation to Athene to pop round for a cup of coffee with us and one of Lucy’s famous raspberry and cream shortbreads. She can prop her spear in my umbrella stand.

LC: In the end, what I love about all the Greek gods is, paradoxically, their humanity. The Olympian stage they act on is bigger and more magical than our own, but their emotional reactions to events are entirely recognisable to me. They are ourselves, writ large on the heavens.

BM: Thanks Lucy, for dropping by and sharing your insights with us.

Lucy's website is at http://www.lucycoats.com
Lucy blogs at http://www.scribblecitycentral.blogspot.com and sometimes at http://www.awfullybigblogadventure.blogspot.com
Lucy's Facebook Fanpage is at http://tinyurl.com/lucycoatsfacebook
Lucy's Twitter page is at http://www.twitter.com/lucycoats