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.