Sunday, 30 September 2012

Monday Musings: Sir Peter Stothard and Self-Published Authors

If Sir Peter Stothard had attacked self-published authors rather than bloggers, would there have been a similar outcry as there was last week when his "killing literature" comment was made?


I got into a discussion with a traditionally published YA author last week after she was critical of self-published books. I made the comment "You seem to be suggesting all self-pubbed books are terrible in the same way Sir Peter Stothard thinks all book bloggers are killing literature." I was quickly told this was an absurd comparison, but I'd like to think there's some merit in it.

Sir Peter's main argument against blogging seems to be that bloggers, due to the lack of anyone selecting or paying them to give their viewpoint, are inferior to 'proper' critics and that because of this there are lots of bad ones out there. The most common criticism of self-published books seems to be that, due to the lack of a publisher giving their authors a book deal, are inferior to traditionally published books. Are there parallels there, or is it all in my imagination?


There's no question, of course, that the rise of e-books - particularly the Kindle - has made self-publishing much easier to achieve today than a few years ago. I spoke to Sarah Menary, who self-published print copies of her book The Tale of Tully and Juno 7 years ago and sold nearly 1000. She said that after reading about GP Taylor's self-published Shadowmancer being picked up by Faber and Faber and receiving standard rejection ships herself she'd gone ahead with self-publishing. "I thought that if I could demonstrate sales with my building society account books and retailers receipts they would have to take me on. (I was wrong!)"

Menary describes receiving the print run of 1000 books as "pretty scary", and explains that "selling them became my life which did not leave any time for writing more books!" With a background in PR giving her a big advantage over most authors striking out for themselves, she managed to get extracts printed for several weeks into 2 large local newspapers, appeared on the radio, gave talks in schools and convinced 10 local bookstores to display her book prominently, Despite this, she says that if she decided to self-publish again she'd definitely go for e-books because "you don't have the cost of print to make back the money on and it is up to you therefore how much you promote it. However I do understand now that really any author who does not have an agent or a publishing house already, must promote themselves to be taken seriously."

When self-publishing was limited to people who were, like Menary, able - and sufficiently confident - to pay for a decent-sized print run then you'd naturally only hear about a few self-publishers. In comparison, today, there are people who can write a book in a month and slam it on Kindle in a few weeks, for minimal expense. Looking at Amazon, it's clear that the number of self-publishers has shot up.


Because of this, it's easy to decide to ignore self-published books. On asking what people thought of them on Twitter, I got a few responses from bloggers saying they didn't read them at all. One well-respected blogger said "I won't read self pubbed because on the whole they aren't all that good (even the ones who eventually get publishing deals)", while another, @liveotherwise, said "Experience is that they can be self indulgent," although she also said "There have been exceptions, and I'm more likely to give it a go where I've got to know an author online."

Non Pratt shared her views on the point, saying "I believe that children’s books should engender a love of reading. Self-publishing means that the books haven’t been ‘vetted’ by anyone at all (except maybe by a loving spouse or a politic child). On the other hand, books issued by publishing houses have usually been read by an agent, at least one editor, at least one member of the sales team and quite possibly by the person selling you the book if you buy it in a shop. Published books have been thought about in ways the target audience (children) are too young to worry about – what’s the underlying message? Is the language accessible? And most importantly, is the story a good read?

Bad books make bad readers. Any children’s writer considering self publishing should ask themselves whether running the risk of a child being turned off by a particularly dull bit of writing is worth the reward of seeing their work in print."

I respect all three of the above people as being really knowledgeable, and I think it's definitely a valid point to make that a lot of self-published books aren't too great, but I don't think the 'gatekeepers' of traditional publishing are particularly infallible. I've read about 200 books this year, with 5 being self- published. (I'm not exactly a self-publishing evangelist, by the way, as those numbers should make clear!) If I ranked those 200 books in order - well, I'd go mad, to be honest. But if I did somehow find the time, drive and inclination to do it, I'm reasonably sure all 5 would be in the top half, and at least one would be in the top 20. I know that really bad self-published books are out there - I can think of two I've read about but not read which sound utterly abominable - but I've only ever actually read two YA books which I thought were so appalling that they should never have seen the light of day.

One of those - which saw a girl and her mother literally getting away with murder - was published by an imprint of a Big Six publisher. Another, from a usually solid publisher, had rape, mutilation, and other horrific stuff with the children involved again getting away with it and learning absolutely nothing from it. (I'd been sent an unsolicited review copy which I declined to review on the grounds I felt like throwing up just reading it, there was no way I wanted to write about it!) As Non mentioned, both of those books will almost certainly have had at least 3 people reading them before their release - I don't know what on earth those people were thinking!


When I asked a few people what they liked about self-published books, traditionally published author Luisa Plaja said "I think some readers enjoy the discovery aspect - it can be like listening to unsigned bands or going to independent film festivals," while self-published author Scott Cramer described his decision to self-publish Night of the Purple Moon as "10,000 percent" the right decision, saying if he hadn't self-published the book, "I would have either put it in the drawer and moved on, or I would have re-written it again and attempted the traditionally publishing route. I wasn’t sure I had the motivation to do another re-write."

Cramer does, however (in a list of tips I'll share fully tomorrow!) accept that "A number of self-published books hit the market before they are ready, and this, I believe, has made some bloggers wary to review any self-published book."

For me, personally, I'm looking for the exact same thing in a self-published book I'm looking for in any other book. Engaging writing, strong characters, and a good voice. On the rare occasions I review one I don't lower my standards for it - but I will agree with Luisa that there's something hugely satisfying about being the first of the people I know to read a really good book!


There was another main reason given for not reviewing self-published books by the first blogger I spoke to about it, "...often the author is too closely involved with the PR of the book to have that professional distance. I have seen no end of drama kicking off around self pubbed titles and just don't want to get in the middle of all that."

While this can certainly put people off reviewing, it's hardly limited to self-published books. The behaviour of various well-known authors, including a New York Times bestseller, over recent months has made me so wary of accepting review copies for the blog that I'll now only take them from people I know and am reasonably sure won't flip out if I don't review or give a less-than-glowing review. What does irritate me slightly is that a meltdown from a self-published author seems to bring out lots of comments along the lines of "That's what self-published authors are like," while, thankfully, a similar meltdown from a big name author, her husband and her assistant doesn't get many "That's what traditionally published authors are like" responses.


So, to draw a somewhat rambly post to an end, I think there's some really good self-published stuff out there and to ignore it all is to risk giving authors the same sort of blanket treatment as Sir Peter gave to bloggers. If I'd avoided all self-published work, I'd have missed out on - amongst others - a really unique paranormal in David Morgan's The Boo Hag, a perfectly voiced PI spoof in Harper Madigan: Junior High Private Eye by Chelsea M. Campbell, and of course one of my favourite sci-fi novels of the year in Night of the Purple Moon by Scott Cramer. In addition, I'd have had to have waited until 2013 for the Penguin release of Tammara Webber's Easy to get my hands on that stunningly powerful novel.

What about you? Do you read self-published books? If not, has this post made you consider it? If you do, is there any you'd particularly recommend?

Sunday Spotlight: Emma Hearts LA by Keris Stainton

My new Sunday Spotlight feature (which actually bears a striking similarity to my old Saturday Spotlight feature) will showcase some of my favourite recent books reviewed for the superb Bookbag site.

Emma's not thrilled to be moving across the Atlantic to LA - unlike her mother and her younger sister Bex. Her mum has a new job and Bex is set to meet with a Hollywood agent. All Emma has to look forward to is a reunion with Oscar, the dorky boy she knew when growing up. When she meets Oscar, though, he's unexpectedly cute... and then TV star Alex Hall appears on the scene as well. With two boys interested, great weather, and locations from movies and TV shows at every turn, maybe LA is actually a pretty good place to live...
I enjoyed Keris Stainton's Jessie Hearts NYC and Emma was my favourite character in it, so I jumped at the chance to read this new book! I certainly wasn't disappointed - Emma is still fabulous, and it's great seeing her come to terms with her parents' divorce and gradually adjust to life in America. The relationship she has with her sister is sweet, and as for the boys... wow! It's brilliant to actually get a love triangle where both guys are likeable - if it's a choice between a nerdy boy and a teen heartthrob who comes with paparazzi included, I'm always going to go for the geek, but as wonderful as Oscar was, Alex was also really sweet and I wasn't sure who Emma was going to end up with.
As she did so well in Jessie Hearts NYC, the author captures the city brilliantly and it almost feels like a character in its own right! If you've read either that book or the fabulous Della Says OMG!, you'll know that she has a really easy to read writing style which is fresh and funny. It's a quick and completely engaging read which I raced through.

If you've already read Emma Hearts LA, don't miss the Secret Story Keris shared with me yesterday over on YA Contemporary!

For more about Keris, check out her website, blog, or talk to her on Twitter. She's also one of the three authors - along with Keren David and Susie Day - behind the fabulous UKYA site, which you should definitely read! 

In addition, the three of them have previously been interviewed here. Check out my interview with Keris, Keren and Susie here.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Friday Feature: Author Interview with Stephanie Burgis

Yesterday I reviewed A Reckless Magick, which brought the Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson trilogy to a close. As fabulous as the book was, I'm rather devastated that one of my very favourite trilogies has now ended! To help ease the blow, I managed to grab a chat with author Stephanie Burgis. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed talking to her.

1. When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

The wonderful thing about the internet is that I've gotten feedback from so many different readers - girls, boys, men and women - that there's no homogenous group in my head! I think of us all as a shared group, though, people who love magical adventure and humour and noisy, loving literary families.

2. I love the way you capture the Regency period so well! Did you have to do a lot of research before starting the trilogy?

I was lucky that I'd been researching the Regency period for years and years already, just for fun! I'm a total history geek, and I first fell for the Regency era as a kid when I discovered Jane Austen's novels (followed shortly afterwards by Georgette Heyer's lovely Regency rom-coms). Because I was fascinated by the era, I gobbled up biographies of Austen and Fanny Burney and a whole host of other Regency-era women whenever I could find them, for well over a decade before Kat ever appeared in my life.

I'd also been working on my PhD in late-eighteenth-century opera and politics for about four years before I ever started writing the first Kat book...and the honest truth is, whenever I'd go into the (wonderful) Brotherton graduate library at the University of Leeds, there was a 9 out of 10 likelihood that I'd get side-tracked over to the room of books about turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Britain, just because it was so full of wonderful resources. So I'd sit there reading Fanny Burney's diaries or Jane Austen's letters instead of working on my thesis!

(This is why I now have 3 published novels and no PhD thesis. Oops.)

I'm sure your PhD thesis would be worth reading, but I'm going to be selfish and say I'm very glad you ended up with the novels instead!

So in other words, by the time I finally had the idea for Kat, I had a pretty good grounding in Regency-era history and society. However, I ended up doing a ton of in-depth research from then on to find out all the small details and practicalities that only popped up as I was writing, like fashion details, food, lighting, etc. Most of that came from books, but I've also dragged my husband around almost every Regency-era house/museum in Britain, some of them multiple times! He's been very tolerant. ;)

3. As regular readers of my blog will know, Kat is one of my all-time favourite heroines. Who are your own personal favourites?

Oh, there are so many! But here are a few: Amelia Peabody (from Elizabeth Peters's mystery series, which begins with Crocodile on the Sandbank); Sarah Thane (from Georgette Heyer's The Talisman Ring); Jane Eyre (from, er, Jane Eyre!) and Elizabeth Bennet (from Pride and Prejudice); Flora Segunda (from Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Segunda trilogy); Aluna (from Jenn Reese's Above World); and Abby Hale (from Caitlen Rubino-Bradway's Ordinary Magic).

4. You have a fabulous website which offers the first few chapters of each book for free, gives behind the scenes details of the books, and has some other wonderful extras. You also have a regularly updated blog. How important do you think the internet is to an author writing for children and teens today?

Oh, I'm glad you like the website! I'm lucky to be married to a pro web designer, so I get to be extravagant with my site. :)

I think the internet is important for any author nowadays, because so many books are bought online, and we can't rely on readers getting to discover and flip through them in a bookstore first. A lot of the books I want to buy aren't even stocked in my local bookstore, so as a reader, I get really frustrated if I can't read an excerpt on the author's site or elsewhere - how else will I know whether I really want to order the book or not? (Note: I often order them through my bookstore anyway, rather than ordering them online, but at least in my local bookstore, you need to pay upfront when you first make the order - and how can I be sure I really want a book if I haven't read at least a few pages of it first?)

Most of all, now that Amazon has changed bookselling so much (for better or worse), I think we really need to be able to offer some kind of online equivalent to the traditional flipping-through-the-book experience that readers get in bookstores.

So my website is really there for the purpose of helping readers figure out whether they want to buy my books or not. (Of course I always hope the answer is yes!)

My blog and my Twitter account, on the other hand, are really just for me. Writing is such an isolating profession, and my second job is parenting, which is also wonderful-but-isolating! So I love the feeling of community that I get through social media. It lets me stay in touch with old friends and make new ones and feel like I'm surrounded by fun, smart, interesting people even when I'm actually stuck in my house all day, desperately trying to meet a deadline.

5. Speaking of extras, there's jewellery inspired by Kat's Chronicles available, which has to be one of the coolest things I've ever seen! How did that come about?

Isn't that fabulous? Way back in 2001, I went to a six-week writing workshop, Clarion West, where I learned a whole bunch about writing *and* met my future husband. Years later, another one of our Clarion West classmates, Emily Mah, started a jewellery business, and I loved the pieces she was making. So when she asked me whether I'd be interested in tie-in jewellery...well, I was thrilled!

She's created different jewellery for each book in the trilogy, and each time, she's asked me what my ideal piece of book-themed jewellery would be. I don't have much of a visual imagination, so I've never tried to dictate what anything should look like - I know she'll be better than me at figuring that out! - but I've always asked for jewellery that tied in to particular elements of the books. For instance, with the first book, I wanted jewellery based on Kat's mother's magic books, and I wanted a charm bracelet that spelled out "Everything's better with highwaymen!" With the last book, we decided on a ring that spelled out a new phrase that is, again, key to the book's theme...and also, the fact that it was a ring was meaningful, because two different rings are actually important in A Reckless Magick.

I don't take any profits from the jewellery that's sold, but I do get free copies for myself, which I love, and also copies to use in giveaways. And it is unbelievably cool to wear beautiful jewellery based on my own books!

It is seriously cool! Great that you get free copies, and I'm in awe of Emily's skill in making it.

6. Kat is from a very close-knit family who all have moments of brilliance in the trilogy (even Stepmama!) - who's your favourite fictional family?

The Casson family, by Hilary McKay! I love them SO much. She's one of my very favourite writers, and Saffy's Angel (the first of the Casson family books) is simply one of the best MG books I've ever read.

I think that's one of the most-recommended series in my interviews, I REALLY need to get round to reading it soon!

7. If you were a character in your own books, which of the men would you most like to marry?

Ha! OK, I'll vote for Frederick Carlyle on this one. Charming, funny, smart and good-looking...Angeline may be getting a terrifying mother-in-law through him, but he's definitely worth it. (Although I have a few friends who I know would vote for Charles! ;) )

I think Frederick's awesome, although I also really like Charles. And another one I won't mention because I know most people reading this probably haven't had a chance to read A Reckless Magick yet...

8. If you could ask any other author any question, who would you ask and what would you ask them?

Erm...honestly, I'd probably pathetically beg Hilary McKay or any other of my favourite authors for sneak-peeks at their next books!

Sounds like a good plan to me!

9. What are you reading at the moment?

I just finished reading Dash and Lily's Book of Dares, by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, and I loved it - a really fun, funny YA rom-com. Now I'm in the middle of reading Guadalupe Garcia McCall's Summer of the Mariposas, a lovely contemporary YA fantasy novel inspired by The Odyssey. It's about five Mexican-American sisters who sneak across the border to Mexico to return a dead man to his family and then have to face various magical barriers on their way back home.

Dash and Lily is another one that's been on my list of books to read for ages, while I haven't heard of the Mariposas, but it sounds great!

10. What's next for Stephanie Burgis?

I won a bursary from Literature Wales this spring to work on a new historical fantasy adventure for children (tentative working title: Antonia O'Toole Takes the Low Road to Hollywood), which I've just finished drafting! It's a screwball road trip across 1930s America, with ghosts and gangsters and a 13-year-old heroine, and I'm about to send it out to some other writers for critique. Then I'll revise it, send it to my agent...and then we'll see! Please cross your fingers for me. :)

Fingers duly crossed! I can't wait to read it.

Very best wishes for the future, Stephanie - thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of A Reckless Magick by Stephanie Burgis

Warning - this review contains spoilers for A Most Improper Magick and A Tangle of Magicks, the first two Kat Stephenson books. Read at your own risk!

Kat's sister Angeline is about to be married, and the twelve-year-old witch is off to the wedding. But where Kat goes, chaos quite often follows, and this is no exception - can she fight off smugglers, make sure the wedding goes off smoothly despite Angeline's fiance's mother's objections, deal with the person following her, prepare for her Guardian initiation ceremony and find out the truth about her mother? I genuinely wasn't sure when reading this - as wonderful as Kat is, there are rather a lot of challenges there! It was a tense read which had me desperately hoping Kat would make it through.

Speaking of Kat, when reviewing book two, I said ''With a little over eleven months of the year to go, it's hard to imagine I'll read another book with a central character as loyal, feisty, clever and altogether wonderful as Kat is." There's actually been one book with two such characters - Code Name Verity - but it's a close run thing! As ever, she is utterly superb and my enthusiasm at the thought of reading the final book in this trilogy was only dampened by the knowledge that this appears to be the end of Kat's adventures.

What a wonderful, satisfying, and completely brilliant ending, though! Stephanie Burgis' writing hits new peaks here, with her usual perfect plotting and excellent dialogue being complemented by some great new characters. In addition to the mysterious marquise, who seems to know Papa from a long time ago and leaves Kat wondering if her mother had a secret the children had never been told, there's a dangerous new enemy, and a potential love interest for Charles. As for Charles, the drunken gambler is so much reformed that he practically counts as a new character himself - and his watchfulness over Kat, who's never been keen on being looked after, provides some of the book's funniest moments.

As you can probably guess, this - and the rest of the series - are an absolutely massive recommendation. For anyone who loves historical fiction, or magic, this is an absolute must-read!

If you're a fan of Stephanie's, check back tomorrow for an exclusive interview with her, by the way!

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

TLS Editor Accuses Book Bloggers of "Killing Literary Criticism" - My Response

Sir Peter Stothard ruffled a fair few feathers with his piece in the Independent yesterday. The subheading said "Editor of the TLS and Man Booker Prize judge Sir Peter Stothard talks about the bloggers killing literary criticism..." which for many bloggers was like a red rag to a bull.

Trying to be restrained, and fair-minded, I decided to do a little digging to see whether Sir Peter had a point. He says that "[The rise of bloggers] will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain't so."

So, is the rise of bloggers "bad for readers"? Looking at it from a YA angle, I tried to find some reviews of some of the hottest recent YA and children's releases.


The last 30 days have seen the releases of Ratburger by David Walliams, Dodger by Terry Pratchett, the latest Skullduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, The Diviners by Libba Bray, Robert Muchamore's newest CHERUB novel, Missing Me by Sophie McKenzie and Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. All are established names in the field of YA and children's fiction with big fanbases. A search of the TLS website reveals nothing about any of these books. Looking at the Independent, where Sir Peter's article was published, we get a mention of Dodger back in April but no review. The Times gives us a review of Dodger, but nothing else. Head over to the Telegraph and searching for those titles brings up lots of opportunities to buy these books, and an interesting piece by Muchamore himself, but still no reviews I can find. The Guardian gives us an interview with Walliams, but no book review, and - Hallelujah! - an excellent review of The Diviners by Libba Bray. (Although I quickly found out that it was written by blogger The Book Addicted Girl.)

When the TLS itself, and the most respected newspapers in the UK, take so little interest in reviewing childrens' and YA books, is it any wonder people turn elsewhere to find reviews? A quick search for any of those authors and titles with the words 'blog' and 'review' gives me dozens to choose from for each title.


Of course, we have to bear in mind Sir Peter's point that "as much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain't so."

I'd love to know more about what Sir Peter was implying with the quote. It seems to be falling somewhere between "some people have more of a right to an opinion than others" and "some reviews are better than others". I'd disagree strongly with the first, and agree with the second. I'd also say the second was rather stating the obvious. Does Sir Peter seriously think that everyone lumps all bloggers together as being equally good at blogging? Since I've never heard anyone say that all authors are equally good, all artists are equally good, or even that all literary critics are equally good, I'd suggest he's making rather a mistake there. There are some bloggers who I trust, or enjoy reading, more than others. I tend to head for their reviews. To find out whether I enjoy a blogger, I spend 5 - 10 minutes or so reading a couple of reviews they've written and seeing if I agree with them or are at least entertained by them. I'd venture that most other people reading blogs do the same thing, rather than diving into them at random as Sir Peter seems to imply.


To take another of his points "People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we'll be worse off. There are some important issues here." Really, Sir Peter? Firstly, I think you'll find that most bloggers tend to recommend books that they think are good, and that a large amount of them agree on a large amount of books. Obviously, there's never going to be a clear consensus - just as there are people who can't stand Catcher in the Rye, and the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy has nearly 500 5-star ratings on Amazon UK but 25 1-star ratings, there are people who dislike some books I love, and others who rave over ones I can't stand.

In the main, though, sensational books like Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, Skin Deep by Laura Jarratt, and Pushing The Limits by Katie McGarry are showing no signs of being 'overwhelmed' by others, and I'd venture to say they'd be significantly more damaged if there were no bloggers around and they were having to wait in vain for anyone at a newspaper to notice them. Also, as much as I love books, let's get real for a minute - 'important issues' is something of an overstatement. When it comes to heart surgery, defusing bombs, or pulling off complicated financial transactions I'd agree that they were best left to the experts (in 2 out of 3 cases, at least!) but there seems to be a limit to the amount of damage even a really bad book blogger can do.


Finally, while I'm impressed that Sir Peter has read 145 books in the last 7 months I'm surprised he describes that as "unnatural" and stunned that the editor of the TLS reads 20 novels in a normal year. Most book bloggers I know read anywhere between four times and ten times as many. If there were more people writing for the top journals and newspapers reading that many, perhaps they'd even be able to fit in some prompt YA reviews!


So, what does everyone else think? Are book bloggers "killing literary criticism" or providing a valuable service for authors and books who might not get reviewed otherwise? Please leave a comment below if you'd like to share your thoughts.

One of the best posts I've seen on the subject, by the way, is from Victoria Walters - well worth checking out at Victoria Writes if you have a few minutes to spare!

Monday, 24 September 2012

Monday Musings - Series Fiction or Stand-Alone Books?

I just read an awesome blog post over at Julie’s Blog about series burn out, and it inspired me to write my own thoughts on series and stand-alone books.

There are so many series out there today that it can seem hard to find a decent stand-alone book. I think it’s easy to see why most of the really smash-hit YA and children’s books published over the last decade or so – thinking of Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games and Beautiful Creatures – have been series books. Readers get familiar with the characters, they find an author whose writing style they like, and the best authors manage to create cliffhangers that provide a partial resolution but give you a compelling reason to read the next book.


Unfortunately, like Julie, I’m starting to suffer from series burn out.  Admittedly, there are certainly some series out there which have got me desperately waiting for the next installment – Michael Grant’s Gone, Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls, Curtis Jobling’s Wereworld, Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist and Susie Day’s Pea all fit the bill there! In addition, two of my favourite books so far this year brought trilogies to a conclusion – the stunning Another Life by Keren David and the wonderful A Reckless Magick (which I’ll be reviewing this week) by Stephanie Burgis.

However, there seem to be a lot of other series out there which just aren’t capturing my attention at the moment. Rachel Caine’s The Morganville Vampires is one where I’ve got partway through and just can’t motivate myself to read on (that’s partly vampire burn out as well, to be fair to Caine!) while Rachel Vincent’s Soul Screamers is another which I’m struggling with slightly – I love the central concept and quite enjoyed books one and two but just knowing there’s so many more to read to get to the end has got me putting them to one side in my current mood.


As well, the cliffhanger ending is capable of really annoying me.  It can be done brilliantly – Jillian Larkin’s Ingenue is a great example of how to bring a book to a satisfying conclusion but provide a tease that makes readers want to come back. Cora Harrison’s Debutantes is the first in a series but you wouldn’t know it from the ending, which is perfect – she’s obviously trusting in her fabulous characters to bring the readers back with no need for a cliffhanger, and it’s definitely worked for me – I can’t wait for book 2!

Too often, though, there seems to be an ending which barely resolves anything – The Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin being the worst recent offender in my eyes, closely followed by The Hunting by Sam Hawksmoor (which I believe was originally set to be the conclusion of Genie Magee’s tale, but the series has now been changed to three books – not a good decision, at least in my opinion.) The second and third books in John Marsden’s Tomorrow series also suffer a bit from this. For me to not feel at least slightly cheated by an ending, there has to be a sense of at least partial closure, I think. (There are exceptions to that rule, as well, though – Michael Grant’s Fear and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince both pulled off endings I’d normally dislike, mainly because I was so invested in the characters that the authors seemed to have ‘earned’ the right to tantalise us like they did.)


If you’re reading a stand-alone, of course, there are other issues! When I finish a book like Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson or The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, it’s great to have the story resolved but I feel sad at the thought of not reading about such wonderful characters again.

Perhaps my favourite solution to this dilemma is when an author writes books which are linked, but aren’t really series books. Regular readers probably know all about my love for the work of Jaclyn Moriarty, whose books are all set in Ashbury High and have characters cropping up in bit parts, but each focus on a different group of students (apart from Finding Cassie Crazy and Dreaming of Amelia, which both follow Emily and Lydia as two of their main characters.) Similarly, I was thrilled to find out that Katie McGarry’s next book will see Beth, a supporting character from Pushing The Limits, take centre stage, and I loved the way that Keris Stainton followed up Jessie Hearts NYC with Emma Hearts LA, giving my favourite character from the earlier book the chance to stand out on her own.  

What does everyone else think on the series fiction vs stand-alone books debate? I’d love to read your replies in the comments section!

Sunday, 23 September 2012

DOUBLE Sunday Spotlight: When I Was Joe and Almost True by Keren David

In celebration of Keren David's brilliant guest post over at my other blog, YA Contemporary, I thought it was high time I migrated the reviews of her first two books over from The Bookbag.

We meet 14 year old Tyler and his young mother Nicki at the police station as he gives a statement about a stabbing he witnessed. Unfortunately for them, some of the people involved would rather not allow him to testify against them and he's forced to flee for his life, moving into the Witness Protection scheme and starting afresh in a new school. Despite the vicious thugs on his trail, there are certain compensations to life at his new school. Formerly just a face in the crowd at St Saviour's, the mysterious newcomer quickly becomes popular, especially when he gets involved in athletics and is coached by older teen Ellie. Not everyone's happy with the impact he makes, though, and he needs to worry about rivals in school nearly as much as he does about the gangsters who are still trying to silence him. And then he meets a girl with a dark secret of her own…
There are many words to describe When I Was Joe, but the most appropriate one is almost certainly 'Wow'. David's taut style, fast paced plot, and believable characterisation make it utterly thrilling right from the first chapter. Ty is a great central narrator and the people who surround him are really vividly fleshed out, while the quality of Keren David's writing is superb. One scene in particularly – I'll refrain from giving specifics as it's very difficult to do so without giving a major spoiler – is brutally intense and actually surprisingly disturbing to read. That said, there's nothing horrifically graphic here and it's definitely one I'd be happy to recommend to mature teens.
While the premise of witness protection and huge amounts of action made it sound like a book aimed squarely at the young male market, the romance is also really well-handled and both boys and girls are sure to love this one. In fact, it's interesting that the action element is relatively restrained in favour of great character development and the problems Ty faces settling into a new school while having to try to avoid standing out, cope with contact lenses to change his appearance, and lie about pretty much everything. David also does an outstanding job of revealing more and more about the true events of the night Ty witnessed the stabbing, completely taking me by surprise with the way the story develops.
One thing I should definitely mention, though – the ending is a real cliffhanger – it's turned the sequel Almost True into a complete must-read for me and is likely to do the same for anyone else who enjoys this gripping novel. While this is an extremely high recommendation, I have to say it comes with a warning – you might want to buy both books at once so you're not left desperately waiting for the conclusion of the story! (Edit: Make that all three books now!)

My usual warning when reviewing sequels, there's no way on earth I can avoid some spoilers for the breathtaking When I Was Joe so bear that in mind when reading.
After revealing to his mother and the police that he'd told girlfriend Claire his secret at the end of When I Was Joe, Ty has been moved to a new safe house. Except the house isn't that safe after all, as we find out in a brutal first few pages when the gang on his trail murder his mother's boyfriend in a case of mistaken identity. Losing confidence in witness protection, his aunt takes him away from his mother and gran to be looked after by an elderly couple who he doesn't recognise at first. But while everyone else is trying to keep Ty safe, he's willing to risk discovery to make sure Claire is alright and hasn't succumbed to her own problems. Can he get in touch with her? Will the gang track him down once more, or will he make it to court to testify? And who are the couple he's staying with?
David answers all the above questions superbly well, tying up loose ends from the first book and adding in so much about Ty's background that it's well worth going back to the original and re-reading with the added knowledge gained from this novel. What's most impressive, though, is it never feels like that's what she's doing. She gradually awakens us to Ty's past while never losing focus on telling the story of his present. And as we read, we realise that the lies in his past date back to far before the stabbing which seemed to be the cause of all his problems...
I wasn't sure David could live up to a truly breathtaking debut with the first book of this pair but needn't have worried. This is again storytelling of the highest quality and is thought-provoking as well as exciting. I loved the gradual revelations and the realistic way in which Ty dealt with them, and thought that the mixture of some really complex new characters and the return of some of my favourites from the first book was fantastic.
If there's one criticism I'd make I was slightly underwhelmed by the ending - hard to say without giving much away but I'd expected something slightly different. Nevertheless this is still an extremely easy recommendation to make and I'm really looking forward to reading more from Keren David in the future. (Edit: That was partly because I thought that was the end of the series - having read the third book, I wouldn't make that criticism anymore!)

I reviewed the final book in the trilogy, Another Life, a couple of weeks ago. In addition to the guest post on YA Contemporary mentioned above, you can find an earlier interview with Keren - which is also brilliant - on this blog.

If you'd like to buy any of the three books and want to click on the below links to give me a little bit of commission, I would be hugely grateful!

Friday, 21 September 2012

Friday Feature: Interview With Simon Packham

Simon Packham has written one of my favourite YA contemporary books so far this year, the stunning Silenced, a powerful study of one boy's grief after the death of his best friend. I jumped at the chance to interview him a few months ago for The Bookbag and have finally got round to running it here as well.

1. When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

I started out trying to write something that I hoped would engage my then eleven year old son and wasn't about teenage spies or wizards. Now I imagine a group of Year 8s who've been dragged to a book reading by a writer they've never heard of. Only last week I was reading bits of Silenced at a school in Bournemouth and found myself making on the spot cuts if they looked a bored.

2. I loved the use of the second person narrative as Chris talked directly to Declan in Silenced - it's so rare to see it used in teen fiction. Did you always know that you wanted to write it like that?

I always imagined it that way. It allowed me to make Declan a major character even though he was dead, as well as getting over the fact that for 90 percent of the book, Chris can't speak.

Agree that Declan is a really strong character despite his being dead.

3. One of my favourite characters was Ariel, described in the blurb on your website as an 'eco-freak'. Could you cope with living self-sufficiently in the way that she does?

I'd like to think so. I was never much of a method actor, but I'm a bit more like that as a writer. I like to have a go at most of the things my characters get up to – if only the lite version. For Silenced I tried double-digging, playing Call of Duty (yes I'm rubbish) and – most difficult of all – meditation. I did once manage to go a full year without buying any new consumer items - apart from underwear, which my wife insisted on. The book I'm writing at the moment, Firewallers, involves the lead character joining a conservationist group/cult on a remote Scottish island. Consequently I've been trying to avoid reading the papers or watching the news – with only partial success!

The new book sounds intriguing! 

4. Prior to your writing career, you were an actor. What was your favourite ever role?

I once played Dvornicheck the ship's steward in Rough Crossing at the Dukes Lancaster. The gag is that when the ship is becalmed he staggers round precariously, but, unlike everyone else, his balance becomes impeccable when they hit the storm. Snout in an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was fun too.

Sounds like a fun role to play! Dream is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. 

5.  Keeping on the subject of acting, would you like to see any of your books adapted for screen? Any ideas on who could play the characters if they were?

Silenced might be a bit problematical with a lead character who doesn't speak, but I could really see it working as a one man show at the Edinburgh Festival (doubling with Waiting for Godot perhaps so they could use the same set - a tree.). I'd love to see comin 2 gt u or The Bex Factor on screen though – perhaps with Martin Clunes as Mr Catchpole. I've always thought my adult novel, The Opposite Bastard (a black comedy about a failed actor who is forced to take a job caring for a quadriplegic undergraduate at Oxford who then gets cast as Hamlet) would make a good film too.

I could definitely see Silenced working very well as a one man show, and Comin 2 gt u could be a great screen adaptation! Looking forward to reading The Bex Factor, which I've just got out of the library, and The Opposite Bastard sounds very cool - will be keeping an eye out for that!

6. Silenced is hugely powerful, partly because you seem to capture the mindset of a school plunged into grief by the death of a pupil so well - especially in the way some students can appear callous in getting over it so quickly. Did you do a lot of research about grief in schools?

When a boy died at my school in the 1970s it only merited a short announcement in assembly. The phenomena of internet grieving (Facebook tribute pages and the like) fascinated me, and I spent a couple of days reading some of the many pages devoted to the victims of teenage car crashes by their peers. What struck me most was how eerily similar they were. It seemed unlikely that that level of emotion could ever be sustained for very long – particularly by those who weren't close to the victim. I hope I got it right.

7. In a previous interview with your publishers Piccadilly Press, you mentioned you once had a job playing the violin for a ballet dancing duck in a supermarket in Leicester. My mind is boggling here - can you share some of the details?

My friend James Aidan had just finished a run in No Sex Please We're British. He was dressed as a duck. I was the violin playing gypsy. We were paid a hundred quid to entertain the Christmas queues. I seem to remember improvising a ballet called Duke Lake. The duck should really have got more than the gypsy in that boiling costume.

That's the kind of thing I REALLY wish was on Youtube!

8. What are you reading at the moment?

The Shining by Steven King. Not particularly typical, but I had an idea for something a bit frightening and thought I should learn from the master.

9. What book would you recommend to people who've read Silenced, Comin 2 gt u and The Bex Factor while they're eagerly awaiting your next novel?

I really enjoyed Bright Girls by Clare Chambers, especially the Brighton setting. (So did my 13 year old daughter) New Boy by William Sutcliffe isn't really YA, but it's set in a school and really funny. But the novel that gripped me most in the last few years is Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris, which coincidentally is also set in (posh private) school.

I keep meaning to try Harris but have never got round to her - that sounds like a good one for me to start with. I've heard lots of good things about New Boy, as well.

10.  What's next for Simon Packham?

I've nearly finished the first draft of 'Firewallers', which, like the other three books, is set in part at St Thomas's Community College and should be out in May 2013. I'd really like to write some more novels with the same setting, especially while my children are still at school and I have a reasonable idea of what modern comprehensives are like. I'd also like to do something funny for slightly younger readers, as well as revisiting my 1970s Grammar school at some point (that horror story I was talking about!) and I've promised myself that I'll have a go at a play too.

Wow, lots to look forward to! Thanks for taking the time to speak to me, Simon.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

Hadley misses the plane to her father's wedding by four minutes. Barely anything in the scheme of things. But those four minutes could change everything, because it's while she's waiting for the next plane that she meets Oliver. Could those four minutes have led to love at first sight?

I've heard lots about this but only got round to picking it up a few weeks ago while I was down in London. I raced through it in less than a couple of hours - Smith has a really easy to read writing style, which is both sweet and humorous. (It also stands out from the crowd by being written in third-person limited, focusing very strongly on Hadley. It's an interesting technique and not one that I've seen much of in YA recently - certainly not done this well.) She's also got a talent for creating memorable characters - I loved both Hadley and Oliver and thought they had a great chemistry between them. It's not the kind of instant passion which gets on my nerves - instead, they seem to be a really well-matched couple who build a strong friendship over the course of a day as the basis for their relationship. I also always like to see well-developed parents and step-parents, and thought that Hadley's father, the woman he's marrying and her mother and the man she's dating were all realistically portrayed.

I've always had a soft spot for books told over a short period of time and this is a perfect example of how a good author can pack a ton of character development (particularly for Hadley) into one day. I love the way she seems to be in much more of a position to move on with her life at the end of the book than she was at the start.

Highly recommended, if you're looking for a light romantic YA contemporary this is well worth checking out.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

10 Tips For Interviewing Authors

I've interviewed around 40 authors in the past few years, starting with Savita Kalhan, author of the wonderful The Long Weekend, and most recently (on this site, at least) speaking to Jackie Marchant and Dougal Trump, who provided me with my first ever double interview to celebrate the publication of I'm Dougal Trump... And It's Not My Fault. Over those years, I've actually learnt a few things, and thought I'd quite like to share them with other bloggers who may be in the position I was once in. (That position was, of course, hiding under my desk shaking with fear at the thought of approaching a Real Life Published Author and hoping they wouldn't turn me to stone for having the sheer nerve to approach them. Many thanks to Savita for not doing that!)

1. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, choose your interview targets carefully. Aim to interview people you admire, who have an interesting story to tell, or who are currently making waves in the book world.

The vast majority of my interviews are with people whose books I've read and loved - but there are other reasons I'll approach someone. One of my favourite early interviews was with Leah Clifford, author of A Touch Mortal, who tweeted offering to 'grant wishes'. I replied with a cheeky wish that she'd grant me an interview and she agreed - so I focused the first few interview questions on the theme of wishes. More recently, Michelle Krys, whose blog I really enjoy reading, got a publishing deal with Random House. Rather than wait until 2014 for her first book to come out, I grabbed an interview focusing on blogging and on being a newly-signed author.

My success rate in getting interviews is above 80%. There are people who've turned me down, been too busy to fit it in, or not responded - but very few in that last category. (Only one who I can think of, in fact.) The vast majority of authors are polite, enjoy talking to bloggers, and have surprised me with how keen they are to take part. Three years ago, if someone had told me that by 2012 I'd have interviewed Teenage Booktrust Prize-winning author Anthony McGowan, and Karen McCombie, one of my very favourite authors of all time, I'd have thought they were delusional. If they'd then said I would have conducted well over 30 other interviews, I'd have been convinced!

2. Be professional when you approach people. Explain why you want to interview them and where you'll run the piece. (I'm lucky enough to be able to get most interviews on The Bookbag, which has a huge following, as well as my own smaller site.) If you've given one of their books a positive review then shoot over a link to it. (If you've given it a negative review, it's probably best not to link to it. But if you're not a fan of their books, why do you want to interview them in the first place?) I tend to approach authors via Twitter or by e-mail if they have an e-mail on their site and make it clear they're happy for fans/bloggers to get in touch - if there's no obvious way to contact them directly that's probably for a reason! In that case, it's better to try and get in contact via their publisher.

3. Do your research. The main purposes of an interview, as far as I'm concerned, are to bring visitors to my site (or the Bookbag) and to publicise the authors' books. The best way to do that is by asking interesting, engaging questions that directly relate to the authors themselves or the books they've written.

4. There's nothing wrong with 'stock questions' - but an interview shouldn't JUST consist of stock questions. I've always used a mixture of questions tailored to individual authors, as mentioned above, and questions I like asking to various people. Some of my most often asked ones are "What was the soundtrack to...?", "If you could ask any other author a question, what would you ask and who would you ask it to?" and "How important do you think an online presence is to a YA author today?" I like them because they're fairly open-ended, they allow authors' personalities to shine through, and it's really interesting for me personally to compare the answers from different authors.

A few months ago, there were a couple of quite vocal authors online basically asking "Why on earth are bloggers sending me stock questions instead of asking me deep, searching, meaningful questions about my Wonderful Work of Staggering Genius?" (No-one I've interviewed, by the way!) I panicked a bit about the stock questions I was asking after reading that, but talked to authors Louisa Reid and Sue Ransom at last month's UKYA event and they seemed to agree with me that having a few stock questions wasn't a problem at all. I would stress, though, that I think you should definitely try and make sure some of them are clearly directed at individual authors.

5. Get a timescale set but be prepared to be flexible. Authors are, almost without exception, busy people. Many of them have day jobs in addition to writing and editing these wonderful books. It's great to get a rough idea of when you can run a post, but I always make it clear that I can shuffle things around or push an interview back if there's a problem with the author getting something done.

6. If people get in touch with you asking if they can be interviewed on your site, think carefully about whether to say yes. If it's someone you're a fan of, great! But if it's an author you haven't heard of, or read before, it's worth suggesting to them that you wait until you've read one of their books before committing to anything. That avoids the problem of agreeing to an interview, reading a book, finding it's not to your tastes and then having to try and either back out gracefully or struggle to find an interesting angle on a book you didn't enjoy.

7. Throw in some interesting links when you run the interview. I'll link to my review of any books the author's written, the author's website, Twitter, and maybe Facebook if they have one. Again, it's a way to publicise your blog posts and the author themselves.

8. When you've got the interview up, publicise it! Tweet it, leave comments on friends' blogs, and message people who are talking about the author of the book. Just be reasonable with it! I use Tweetdeck to monitor various YA related terms and author names and, for example, if I saw someone tweeting about a particular author a day or two after I'd interviewed them I'd drop them a tweet with a link in. If you're just tweeting 50 random people with a link it's both less effective and extremely spammy.

After writing the first 8 tips above, I threw the question open to Twitter.

Matt Imrie of Teen Librarian said "Keep some stock questions around to bulk up an interview, generally only book/life specific questions can be personalised."

M from We Sat Down advised "Craft some open-ended questions so that they can tell the story and ask questions for which you really want to know the answers."

Have you got any great tips about interviewing authors? It would be brilliant if you'd share them in the comments section!

Edit: The fabulous Helena Pielichaty took to Twitter to ask "Is #1 take chocolate?" For those of you lucky enough to score face-to-face interviews, that sounds like good advice to me!

Monday, 17 September 2012

Interview with Laura Jarratt over at

Just a brief update - as readers will know, one of my favourite books of the last few years - and winner of the YA Yeah Yeah Mid-Year award for Best YA Contemporary book - was Laura Jarratt's debut novel Skin Deep.

I've just started writing for my local news website and Laura has just been named Wrexham Library's Author of the Month. She was kind enough to do a mini-interview with me to celebrate - if you'd like to check it out, head over to

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Debutantes by Cora Harrison

My new Sunday Spotlight feature (which actually bears a striking similarity to my old Saturday Spotlight feature) will showcase some of my favourite recent books reviewed for the superb Bookbag site.

The year is 1923. Everyone who is anyone is enjoying themselves in London, coming out as a debutante and eagerly anticipating the royal wedding. But the Derringtons aren’t really anyone – they’re stuck in their run-down house in the country with their father and their great-aunt, without the money or fashionable dresses for eldest sister Violet to have the season she desperately wants. Can these four young ladies make their way in the world?
Cora Harrison’s new book features a charming set of characters – notably the three youngest of the Derrington sisters. Jazz musician Poppy, aspiring film director Daisy, and clever Rose, always making up stories, are absolutely lovely. Violet is less easy to warm to but definitely feels realistic, with her social climbing ambitions just what you’d expect for the time period – and to be fair, not completely selfish as one of the reasons she wants to find a husband is so that she’s able to help her sisters have their own seasons.
Add to this a really entertaining supporting cast – I particularly liked servants Maud and Morgan and brooding neighbour Justin, and the believable relationships the sisters had with each other and with the rest of the characters – and a rich eye for detail which captures the feel of the Twenties extremely well and you have a strong contender for one of the best teen historical novels of the year so far. It’s not quite five stars – I’m being really picky here, but one of the plotlines was rather predictable – but it’s comfortably worth four and a half and I’m really looking forward to the next in the series.
Oh, yes – it’s a series, but… there’s an ending! Which actually resolves things! This shouldn’t be quite as surprising as it is but after a recent run of reading books which just end on unsatisfying cliffhangers it was extremely welcome to find one which has got characters strong enough for me to want to read more about them but actually has a satisfying conclusion to the novel.
Definite recommendation to all, absolutely massive one to fans of historical novels.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of Easy by Tammara Webber

Jacqueline gave up her dreams of becoming a classical musician to follow her boyfriend Kennedy to college. When he dumps her, it hits her hard – so hard she starts skipping classes and, as a result, failing economics. Dragged out to a party by her friend to help her get over the break-up, instead she faces terror as her ex’s friend Buck tries to rape her. A mysterious stranger, Lucas, intervenes to save her, and when she realises they share economics, she starts to wonder whether he could take her mind off Kennedy. She’s also receiving e-mail tuition from an older student she’s never met, who seems to be flirting with her. Soon, though, she realises that Buck hasn’t forgiven her for escaping his attentions, and she’s forced to try to find the courage to take a stand against him.

Easy has become something of a sensation over the past few months. It was self-published by author Tammara Webber back in May, and hit the New York Times bestseller list the following month. Last week, it was picked up for UK release by Penguin under their Razorbill imprint and will be out in paperback in January.

It’s easy (sorry, couldn’t resist!) to see why this one has had the levels of success that fairly few self-published books have come close to. Webber has created a number of really compelling characters here, including an intriguing love triangle – and this is coming from someone who can’t stand love triangles - while the college setting is well-described and the author transports us to a world of studying, partying, and extra-curricular activities with great skill. I also thought the message of the book was very strong (without preaching) and loved Jacqueline’s character development through the book, while there was one speech from a relatively minor character which had me wanting to stand up and cheer, both because of the message it gave and because of how well it was written.

Webber describes it as being written for a ‘Mature Young Adult/New Adult’ audience. For those who haven’t seen the ‘New Adult’ label before, it seems to be being used to describe readers who are college-aged or thereabouts. There’s enough steamy scenes here that it’s significantly more mature than most books you’d find in the teen section of a bookcase, but there’s nothing hugely explicit and I’d happily recommend it to older teens as well as adult readers.

Also, while I don’t normally judge a book by its cover, I think the professionalism of this one really helped it get noticed originally. It’s a sensible font, a gorgeous picture, and wouldn’t look out of place amongst traditionally published book. I don’t know if Penguin will use it next January when the book hits our shelves, but I hope they do.

Overall, very strong recommendation – since reading this I’ve already picked up the first in Webber’s ‘Between The Lines’ series and will definitely be looking forward to her future work.