Thursday, 31 October 2013

Thursday Thoughts: Mini-Recommendations (NaNoWriMo Special)

With less than six hours to go (in the UK, at least) until National Novel Writing Month kicks off, I thought it was a good time to share some of my favourite books about writing. (The first isn't really a 'mini' recommendation, being one of the longest reviews I can remember writing, but the others fit the definition rather better.)

If I was going to write a list of authors I admire - well, I wouldn't begin it now. There are so many that I'd still be doing it at the end of November. But if I did take it upon myself to write a list, Lawrence Block would probably be on top of it. Hugely prolific and vastly varied when it comes to thrillers and crime stories, he's someone who seems able to turn his hand to so many different types of novel or short story with excellent results every time. I mentioned in a piece I wrote on Sunday that he'd created my two favourite crime-solvers, alcoholic ex-cop Matt Scudder and gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, and the contrast between the grittiness of the former series and the cosiness of the latter would place him high on my list of favourites even without his other work. Throw in the comic capers of Evan Tanner, whose sleep-centre was destroyed by shrapnel and now works for a mysterious department going across the world and stirring up trouble, and stamp-collecting assassin Keller, and you've got four excellent series of novels. Then there's the short stories, which feature all of these characters and many others, often rivalling Roald Dahl for darkness and clever plot twists.

I was about to say I don't know how he does it, but the whole point of this review is that I now have some idea. Block shared some of his secrets in a series of entertaining and informative columns, and Telling Lies For Fun and Profit is a collection of them, taking the aspiring writer through everything from how to choose the best place to start a novel to when surprise endings work, via creative plagiarism, sharing your work with other people, and the pros and cons of pen names. There are 47 chapters here, along with an introduction from another prolific crime writer, Sue Grafton, and there's not a bad one amongst them. My personal favourites are the chapter on dialogue, and the one on verbs.

To be fair, I've probably read similar advice to that given in those chapters, and some of the others, several times before. It's not so much that Block is dispensing hitherto-unknown wisdom - more the sheer amount of excellent advice given, and the way in which he puts it across. His writing style - similar here to his first-person narration in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series - is so entertaining that it's possibly worth reading even if you have no plans to write anything yourself. (Is there anyone out there in that boat, the day before Nano, though?) There are a huge amount of wonderful quotes here - complaining about people congratulating him on self-discipline rather than talent, suggesting that this implies "that a persistent chimpanzee could match me book for book if he could just sit still long enough and work the space bar with his non-opposable thumb," or talking about procrastination. "Procrastination's had a bad name ever since 1742, when Edward Young called it the thief of time. (He'd have written that line back in 1739, but kept putting it off.)"

He also gives a generous amount of examples to illustrate his points, often from his own work but also quoting authors as varied as PG Wodehouse and Robert Ludlum. It's fascinating to see his analysis of what works and what doesn't - he's unsparing in his criticism of some of his own work, particularly his earlier writing. This is perhaps even more interesting to long-term fans who've read the stories he's talking about, but I think it can be enjoyed even by people

The column format makes it easy to dip into and out of as well, always a plus if you think you'll be too busy writing this month to read an entire guide. Highly recommended.

Speaking about books to read if you don't have much time and want something to get you going quickly, don't miss Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley. Her introduction does recommend reading it twice - one to get the overview and then again to do the assignments given - but it's so concise that you could do this in significantly less time than it would take you to read many books on writing. Despite its brevity, Yardley has created a wonderful book here which gives clear, constructive advice on how to create memorable characters and how to write an outline for your novel. It's perhaps not the best book to read for a beginning writer - her introduction states "The key to this particular book is taking the 'tools' of other well-known writing references, and showing you a hands-on, workable technique to use those tools" - but for anyone who has a vague idea of what they want their novel to be about and would feel much happier with an outline in place, this is pretty close to indispensable, and at the ridiculously low price it's available at, is an incredibly good investment. I came up with an idea yesterday (after discarding the four I'd been working at previously) and working from this created a very rough scene by scene outline which I'm pretty pleased with in a couple of hours. Things will no doubt change, there, as Yardley herself says, but as a way to get started, it was exceptionally helpful. (I should point out there that I rather skimmed parts of the assignments, so I'd set aside significantly longer than those couple of hours if you want to do it 'properly'.)

Finally, not a book giving writing advice as such, but perhaps the one book I've referred to most when writing is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I bought it over a year ago and have had it open on my Kindle app pretty much every time I've sat down to write for any significant time over the past twelve months. The authors have taken 75 common emotions, from adoration to fear, from anticipation to terror, and from rage to love, and created a list of physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses and cues of acute/long-term and suppressed expressions of that emotion for each one. For anyone who struggles, as I did, with "show don't tell" this is an absolute goldmine. I've now gone from writing something along the lines of "I felt really sad when I got the news about Rick's death" to being able to actually describing my narrator's reaction. (I've spent half an hour looking for an example that I'm comfortable sharing with the world, but as good as the ET is, it doesn't work miracles, so I'm keeping my fiction to myself for a while longer!)

The main body of the book is these 75 entries, but it's also got a few useful sections at the start on how to get the best use out of it, including avoiding drama, twisting cliches, and looking at related emotions to the one you want to describe (again, a few are suggested in each entry.)

Massively recommended as a really useful book to refer to.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Classic Children's/YA: The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

Number of books: 5 (Starting with The Book of Three, first published 1964, finishing with The High King in 1968.)

Availability: Reprinted fairly recently, and there's a gorgeous boxed set available for around £20. 

The Premise: In the land of Prydain, an assistant pig-keeper is thrust into the battle against Arawn Death-Lord and his army. Aided by a fairly ragtag bunch of companions, he embarks on several perilous quests.

Why I Really Like It: This is different from the rest of the books I'm planning on writing about here, because I had only the vaguest memories of them from my childhood when I reread them a year or two ago. In fact, many of those memories are probably of Disney's adaptation of book 2, The Black Cauldron - a decent film, but a hopeless adaptation. What stunned me when rereading them is how strong the characters are. Taran's journey over the course of the five books is as good a character arc as I can ever remember seeing in a fantasy story, while there are others - notably the Princess Eilonwy - who are brilliantly developed supporting characters. It also has lots of excitement, it's incredibly emotional, and has a simply stunning ending.

Best Books: The Black Cauldron - Book one was good without being anything special, but this second book was the one which had me completely hooked. 

Taran Wanderer - The penultimate book in the series could have felt out of place. It sees Taran journey to try and find out who his parents were, and doesn't have all that much to do with the main conflict with Arawn. However, Taran is such a wonderful character and Alexander's writing is so fantastic that this volume is absolutely stunning, as we see Taran mature over the course of his journey. 

The High King - Tempted to say that this final book is neck and neck with Taran Wanderer, but one of the all-time great climaxes puts it slightly ahead of the previous book. BUY TISSUES, though.

Who It Will Appeal To: Other Welsh-inspired books I loved as a child included Jenny Nimmo's Magician Trilogy and Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence. A more modern series also based on Welsh legend is Maggie Stiefvater's fabulous Raven Boys. If you liked any of them, you'll love these.

Others By The Same Author: Lots, but I've never touched any of them. Somehow, I've never thought they could live up to these.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Sunday Special: Bernie Rhodenbarr Recommendation

(An incredibly rare post on an adult series here. While I try to limit this blog to YA, sometimes my enthusiasm overtakes me.)

I've got six reviews I need to write and two other posts I was meant to be doing today, but they've all gone completely out of my head after the news I've just seen over on Lawrence Block's website.

The news that Block is coming out of retirement is welcome enough. (I enjoyed Hit Me, about his stamp-collecting assassin Keller, but reading it was tinged with sadness after newspaper articles quoted him as saying "I have no idea if there will be a next book".) The swift return of one of the most prolific, and my own personal favourite, of all crime writers is a wonderful surprise.

But not just a new Block, but a new Bernie Rhodenbarr novel after nearly a decade? Truly, this is a miraculous day. Rhodenbarr is only my second favourite crime-solver ever (as amazing as he is, he's edged out by Block's hard-bitten private eye, Matt Scudder) but his novels are by far the most rereadable. They're cleverly-plotted and beautifully written cozy mysteries featuring Bernie himself - a burglar turned bookseller, his best friend Carolyn, a lesbian dog groomer, and Ray Kirschmann, a detective who Bernie refers to as "the best cop money can buy."

For those who haven't had the pleasure of meeting this trio before, Bernie is a gentleman thief who's addicted to the thrill that breaking and entering provides. He shuns violence, but has a tendency to find himself involved in murders, often as a suspect after he stumbles onto a dead body in the course of an otherwise routine job. This tends to lead to him, usually with help from Caroline, investigating the case himself to clear his name. There's generally a conclusion when Bernie calls all the suspects together, in classic crime fashion, to announce whodunnit.

That might sound rather formulaic, and to a point it is, but it's a winning formula thanks to the likeability of Bernie, Caroline and even Ray (in his own gruff, slightly crooked way). Block also gives us fiendishly clever plots and a host of interesting suspects, making them a true puzzle to read the first time around as it's nearly impossible to guess who commmitted the crime. (For me, at least - cleverer readers are given enough clues to work it out!)

What sets them apat from so many other mysteries, though, is Bernie's wonderful narration and the seductively film noir-ish dialogue which make these, more than any other crime stories, a pleasure to read again and again and again. Responding to a lady's query in the first book, Burglars Can't Be Choosers, "Do they really cut a person's hair that short when they send him to prison?", Bernie confirms it. "Ever since Samson pushed the temple down. They're not taking any chances." In The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart - perhaps the very best of the 10 novels - we find a taxi driver in fine form talking about the evils of doctors. "And after they blind you and cripple you, so that you've got no choice but to sue them, where do you have to go? To a lawyer! And that's worse!" As for the narration, at heart, Bernie is a philosopher and a pragmatist. In that same book, he explains about the problems of theft in "this age of credit cards and twenty-four-hour automatic teller machines. There are still people who keep large amounts of real money around, but they typically keep other things on hand as well, such as wholesale quantities of illegal drugs, not to mention assault rifles and attack-trained pit bulls. They lead their lives and I lead mine, and if the twain never get around to meeting, that's fine with me."

Another way in which Mrs Rhodenbarr's little boy, as Ray tends to refer to Bernie, triumps on rereadabiliy is the interchangeability of the novels. While part of the thing that make Matt Scudder so special is the character arc which sees him age and fight a battle against alcoholism throughout that series, and the relationships in his life, Bernie is seemingly ageless. The only real changes in his situation are than between books 2 and 3 he buys a bookshop, and meets Caroline. This means that while the Scudder books need to be read in order to get the full effect, the Bernie novels are perfect to dip into in any order you feel like.

So, the news of a long-awaited eleventh in the series, The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons, has left me with just one decision - pre-order on Kindle for Christmas Day delivery at £6.37, or splash out and go to LB's website to get the signed and numbered deluxe hardback for about £65 including postage and packing to the UK. I have never in my life even considered spending over £20 on a book before, but this is one which might just be worth it, as a Christmas gift to myself...

If you haven't had the pleasure of meeting Bernie and the rest for yourself yet, check out the two omnibus editions which each collect 5 of the novels. They're a massive bargain at just £8.99 each on Kindle.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Friday Feature: Author Interview with Rosie Best

One of the coolest fantasies of the year has been Rosie Best's Skulk, from the superb Strange Chemistry, so I was thrilled to get an interview with the author! 

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

This is quite a hard question to answer because I'm still fairly new to the concept of having readers! Basically, the image that springs to mind is of a teenage girl with glasses who spends too much time on the internet, because that's me, give or take fifteen years. I had to pick a label for the readers I hope I'm writing for, I think I'd use 'nerd' - by which I mean the modern, proud, geek-shall-inherit-the-earth definition of nerd which encompasses people from all walks of life, with passions for all sorts of different things. 

2. Meg's voice is exceptionally strong. Who are your favourite narrators in other teen novels?

Thank you! A lot of the teen novels I like best are the ones with incredibly strong or unusual narrators. In fact, the two that leap to mind are both World War 2 stories that made me cry buckets of tears:

The Book Thief, by Markus Zuzak, instantly caught my attention and love for its use of Death as an omniscient narrator, telling the story of this girl Liesel who's captured his attention and interest. Death has a real voice and personality of his own, and it's one of the most brilliant and upsetting ways to tell a story set in Nazi Germany I've ever read. 

The other book is Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. I won't say too much about the plot because if you haven't read it you really should, but we're introduced to the main character, a Scottish teenager, as she begins to write a confession having been captured by the Nazis in occupied France. She writes about her circumstances with chilling simplicity and then begins to describe how she got there with this beautiful nostalgic poetry... this book plays with the idea of found documents and storytelling in the most amazing way. 

Two of my all-time favourite books - great picks!

3. Meg's mother is one of the most compellingly awful parents I've ever seen in fiction. Who do you think is the worst ever fictional parent?

Matilda's parents, from the Roald Dahl novel, are pretty horrid - cruel, neglectful and just totally at odds with their daughter. I also can't help thinking about the parents of the young characters from season four of The Wire. It's a gritty, unrelentingly realistic (and very adult) TV show and there is a lot of terrible parenting in it. In some ways the family who spend all their money on drugs and abandon their son completely are actually less awful than the mother who gives her son everything but expects him to grow up to be something and someone he just isn't cut out to be. 

The Wire is a series I keep meaning to try, but never get around to. Matilda's parents are definitely awful!

4. As a reader, Strange Chemistry are one of my very favourite imprints because they publish such a variety of outstanding speculative fiction. As a writer, what was it that made you choose them?

I love Strange Chemistry for pretty much the same reason you do - they publish an amazing range of fantasy and sci-fi and I knew that Skulk would fit right in. I'm thrilled to be in such excellent company and I can't wait to read the ones I've not got around to yet. You can tell they really love and understand genre fiction and respect their readers. Plus, they have some of the best cover art in the business!

5. In Skulk, you bring London to life brilliantly. How long have you lived in the city, and have you always wanted to write something set here?

I've lived here most of my life, apart from a year or two. I haven't really wanted to set something here because it has never really occurred to me that I could set things somewhere else (apart from a few stories that had to take place in New York, fantasy worlds or outer space!). London is my default setting. That said, Skulk is a very London-focused story, and I did try to cram as much of the atmosphere and landmarks that I love about the city into the book as I possibly could. 

6. Your shapeshifters in Skulk - foxes, ravens, butterflies, spiders and rats - seem a strange collection of animals. Why did you pick those five?

I started out with the idea of shapeshifting urban foxes, and from there it seemed natural to have other shapeshifters who'd also blend in perfectly with the urban environment. It was also partly because of their plural nouns - I knew I wanted the groups to be named after a group of that animal so I did have a long list of animals and group names that I whittled down to those five. There were several that I would've loved to use, but couldn't justify finding in London - did you know a group of sharks can be called a Shiver? I gave at least five minutes thought to whether I could have secret sharks living in the Thames because I wanted to use the Shiver... 

I ended up with Skulk, Conspiracy, Rabble, Cluster and Horde. They're all brilliantly evocative words, plus all of them - even butterflies - are common sights in London (or an actual tourist attraction, in the case of the ravens).  

7. I saw on your blog that you recently recommended the wonderful JL8, one of my favourite webcomics. Who's your favourite character in it?

Ooh, that's really hard! JL8 is a work of genius and all the characters are really spot on as representations of those characters. I think I have to say Bruce - Batman just makes an amazing Kindergartener, with his grumpy 'I am the night' attitude and the elaborate plans and smoke bombs (and fear of clowns). But I also have a massive soft spot for Barry and Diana, plus I think the Clark in JL8 is a much better and more true-to-character version of Superman than in some recent comics and films I could mention...

Agreed on Bruce - he's definitely my favourite character! (And I'm not a big fan of Batman generally, but he works perfectly in JL8.)

8. Your Strange Chemistry bio mentions you have a passion for video games. What's your all-time favourite?

Probably Grim Fandango. It's a point and click adventure where you play a skeleton in the land of the dead who works as a travel agent for the recently deceased. It blends noir storytelling with Mexican Day of the Dead design and it is hilarious, occasionally moving, and basically pretty perfect. I highly recommend anyone who hasn't played it to check it out - I think you may have to do a bit of digging to find a version that's playable on modern PCs, but it's absolutely worth it. More recently, I've been playing a lot of Dragon Age - I'm this close to finishing Origins and I already have Dragon Age 2 sitting on my computer desk ready to go as soon as I do. 

9. What are you reading at the moment?

Lots of things! I love it when one book hooks me and I can't put it down, but I also enjoy having several books that I'm making my way through slowly and read as and when I fancy it. I generally have an ebook (or several) on my phone, a printed book lying around the house, and another one in my bag at all times. I started The Pelican Brief by John Grisham for a book club, and though the meeting has come and gone I'm still reading a few pages at a time. I'm also reading Dawn, the first in the very weird but very compelling adult sci-fi Lilith's Brood trilogy by Octavia Butler. Plus, I'm a Neil Gaiman completist so of course I have a copy of Fortunately, The Milk that I'm carrying around with me to read in a few short bursts. When I'm done with those I'm going to start Firebrand by the awesome Gillian Philip and I desperately need to buy myself a copy of Pantomime, by my Strange Chemistry compatriot Laura Lam.

Two books there that you really need to start - Firebrand is wonderful, and Pantomime is absolutely phenomenal.

10. What's next for Rosie Best?

I actually have a deadline on the day this interview goes up! That's the third in a trilogy of 7+ slightly-steampunk fantasy books that I'm writing for Working Partners. After that, it's back to work on the sequel to Skulk, which I will be attempting to write while moving house which ought to be entertaining. 

Rosie has been busy on a blog tour recently - don't miss her posts! You can also catch her on Twitter.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Thursday Thoughts: YA Yeah Yeah Mini Recommendations

This seemed to go pretty well the other week, and I'm still stuck for time, so let's try some more mini-recommendations.

That Burning Summer by Lydia Syson - I picked this up more because of the breathtaking cover than anything else, but ended up being impressed by the writing as well. It's a World War II tale of a girl living on a farm who discovers a Polish airman who's desperate to not go back to fighting, and hides him in a remote church. Characters are well-portrayed, particularly main couple Peggy and Henryk, and Peggy's younger brother Ernest. Even more impressively (given my well-known feelings on quick-burning love stories), the romance between Peggy and Henryk feels completely believable and they make an excellent couple.

In Bloom by Matthew Crow - I've seen a fair bit of buzz suggesting this was really, really good. Nothing had prepared me for how completely wonderful it actually is, though. The story of Francis, who gets diagnosed with leukeaemia and faces the horrors of illness and treatment alongside Amber, a girl he meets at the hospital, is one of the best of the year for me. It's warm, tender, and surprisingly funny at times, given the subject matter. It's also a beautiful depiction of both romantic love and family relationships, with a brilliant narrator and a superb supporting cast. I particularly liked Francis's brother Chris and both lead character's mothers, who are very different people but who are both brilliantly drawn.

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher - I've avoided this after not being a big fan of Pitcher's first, My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece, but was eventually tempted to pick it up by Jill Murphy's wonderful review over at the Bookbag. Narrator Zoe, who feels responsible for the death of a boy, is an outstanding character, while the central concept here as 15-year-old Zoe unburdens herself of her guilty secret by writing to a convicted murderer on Texas's Death Row is riveting. As she tells both her story and his, her voice is superb.

Sparks: The Epic, Completely True Blue, (Almost) Holy Quest of Debbie by SJ Adams is one I've heard nothing about, in contrast to the much-praised previous two. I have a real soft spot for books set completely or mostly in the course of one day, and this one is a new favourite of mine. Following Debbie as she tries to find her best friend Lisa to confess she has a crush on her before Lisa succumbs to the doubtful charms of the school's most boring guy, it's a wacky but likeable romp. Debbie's support for her journey, Emma and Tim - founder members of the Church of Blue - are engaging characters and the relationships at the heart of the book are really believable. This deserves to be much better known than it is (at least in the UK - not sure if it's more popular over in the States.) The constant references to TV show Full House probably work better if you've seen it, or have some idea of what it is, but as someone who just vaguely recognised the title, I managed to fill in the gaps as much as needed. Definitely worth checking out!

Let It Snow by Maureen Johnson, John Green and Lauren Myracle - Brilliantly heart-warming story, consisting of three interlinked novellas, is an ideal Christmas present. Check out my full review over at the Bookbag.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Classic Children's/YA: Lauren Lucien on Scrambled Legs by Jahnna N. Malcom

Handing over to Lauren Lucien this week - many thanks, Lauren!

Number of books:

Ten in the series.


Definitely a few copies on eBay. I came across mine by chance in charity shops and car boot sales.

The Premise:

Five young misfits are forced to attend Deerfield Academy Of Dance and the only things they dislike more than this are their uppity classmates affectionately named The Bunheads. 

As much as they try they can't escape and through their trials and tribulations they grow to appreciate the academy, themselves and even learn a pirouette or two.

Why I Really Like It:

I was obsessed with ballet books (The Drina Series by Jean Estoril and later, even Angelina Ballerina) and I really wanted to be a ballet dancer but couldn't afford to keep up with classes and exams. Reading the brilliant detail and recreating the sound your ballet slipper makes sliding into third position across the floor, the awkwardness of a leotard when you get older, trying to force frizzy hair into a bun, longing for pointe shoes... Scrambled Legs was the next best thing and it had those old school likeable stereotyped characters laced with heaps of American sarcasm and sassiness that I've never stopped being drawn to - Paula Danziger anyone?

Best Books:

It's got to be Battle Of The Bunheads (Book Two) which features the gang once and for all standing up to the notoriously snobby and scheming 'Bunheads' oh and there's the fiasco surrounding the purchasing of Gwen's first bra...

Who It Will Appeal To:

Primarily 8-12 year old lovers of ballet, underdogs and strong female characters.

Others By The Same Author:

The 'author' Jahnna N. Malcom is actually two people, a couple called Jahnna Beecham and Malcom Hillgartner and according to my research they've written over one hundred books as well as other media.

Lauren can be found on Twitter and at her website.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

My Week in London: 13th - 19th October

Here's the second in my new 'My Week in London' feature. This week it's dance dance dance!

Tuesday saw me head to the South Bank to see Nobulus's Out of the Shadow show. I'd been really looking forward to this, billed as a mix of "breakdance, popping and locking, contemporary dance, acrobatics and ballet". I was rather disappointed, though. The show took us from the creation of the Earth to an imagined post-apocalyptic future. It's an ambitious offering from the ten-strong Austrian collective, who play not just the parts but also form the set from their own bodies, but not many of the dances worked well for me. The good stuff for me was a strong solo in act 1 from lead and choreographer Alex Wengler, and a wonderful more traditional dance between him and Eleni Arapaki. Oh, one thing that I did like was the superb soundtrack, which covers everything from classical to more modern music. Also Sprach Zarathustra was a particular highlight for me - but it's a worrying indication of a dance show that I'd possibly have enjoyed it nearly as much with my eyes closed.

Rather a better night on Wednesday, with the highlight of the week for me, a trip to Sadler's Wells to see a triple bill of one-act David Bintley ballets from the Birmingham Royal Ballet. (And it was a bargain, as well! £12 each for seats for this and Sleeping Beauty on the Saturday, with 20% off due to buying them together, making the total cost of the two nights - including a very comprehensive and informative programme which covered both nights - just £25.20.) I wasn't planning on going to this one at first but realising that it would only be an extra £7.20 compared to just seeing Sleeping Beauty, finding out that Brandon Lawrence, who I really liked at the Yorkshire Summer School gala a few weeks ago, and reading a fabulous review over on BalletCoForum persuaded me.

For me, e = mc2, representing Einstein's famous equation through dance, was the least to my tastes, although I enjoyed it more as it went on. The opening with so many pairs wonderfully in time was really striking, and third piece The Manhattan Project was very well danced by Samara Downs and stood out as something different, with its ominous soundtrack. Celeritas2 was very good, particularly Miki Mizutani and Max Maslen as the leads, while the second part, mass, was the one I enjoyed the least.

Tombeaux, Bintley's homage to classical ballet, made when he was about to leave the Royal Ballet in 1993, was more to my liking. Jasper Conran's striking costume designs - I thought the blue/black tutus were gorgeous - helped it immediately grab my attention, and there were several dances I really liked, with the standout being Nao Sakuma's dance with Yasuo Atsuji, Brandon Lawrence, Tom Rogers and Benjamin Soerel.

As for Still Life at the Penguin Cafe - wow! Easily worth the price of admission alone. This is Bintley's 1988 ballet featuring a host of endangered species taking part in vignettes. I thought it started brilliantly, with Great Auks as 1930s waiters, and got better and better, at least until The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas. (Not to say anything after that wasn't brilliant, it was just that Karla Doorbar's Flea causing chaos for the five morris dancers with her were so sensational nothing else could quite match them for me!) Having said that, Mathias Dingman's flamboyant Monkey came very close, while the final scene was surprisingly emotional. Earlier on in the ballet, Maureya Lebowitz made a delightful Ram, and James Barton's hoedown as the Texas Kangaroo Rat was superb. I also thought the costumes for this were simply breathtaking, and the music was utterly gorgeous.

On Friday, we took a college trip to an outdoor activity centre. I generally avoid discussing work on this blog, but I'll make an exception to say that I was delighted to be in charge of 8 absolutely fantastic students, and thrilled to get the chance to take a shot at archery - turning out to be rather better than I'd hoped to be. The above photo shows the remnants of a balloon which had been covering the gold part of the target until I burst it with a wonderfully aimed/incredibly lucky arrow. (Delete according to how generous you're feeling!)
Come Saturday morning, I headed into London, and bumped into Liz de Jager, author of the upcoming The Blackhart Legacy, and Sarah (esssjay on Twitter). Having nearly met Liz a few months ago at the Strange Chemistry event but being too shy to introduce myself at the time, I actually managed to say hello this time and it was brilliant to be able to discuss YA in person with a couple of people. After that, I headed to the Real Food Festival on the South Bank to treat myself to a gorgeous beefburger from Woodwards Farm - surely the nicest in London, for just £4.50 - then to Sadler's Wells. At the Wells, I saw the aforementioned performance of Sleeping Beauty. This was the first full-length ballet I've seen and to be honest, for the first ten minutes or so of the prologue. I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy it. Things picked up for me with the fairies dancing - I was thrilled to see Karla Doorbar again after loving her as the Flea on Wednesday night, and she didn't disappoint, being wonderfully expressive. (I wish her solo had been longer, though!) The other standout of the six fairies for me was Maureya Lebowitz as The Fairy of Temperament, who was brilliant, especially her pirouettes. (I'm not 100% sure they were pirouettes, but I posted an earlier version of this on BalletCoForum earlier and no-one's asked me what on earth I'm talking about, so I'll hope I've got the right term there!)

Things really picked up, though, with the entrance of the wonderfully malevolent Marion Tait as Carabosse. The lighting was great, and Tait and her 6 attendants were superb - really projecting an aura of evil.

I also enjoyed the charming garland dance in act I, and thought that Elisha Willis was a captivating Aurora, grabbing the audience's attention from her first steps. I loved her Rose Adagio, the wonderful conclusion to her first solo, and thought her final solo of the act - going from childish delight at her 'new toy' the spindle, to pricking her finger, starting to recover, and eventually collapsing - was stunning.

Act II was perhaps less to my tastes - I found Jamie Bond hard to connect to at this point (although he grew on me, and I really enjoyed his grand pas de deux with Willis near the end of the ballet), but act III had some wonderful dancing. Having said that, I thought it was on the long side - but the pas de quatre was beautiful (especially as it gave me another chance to see the brilliant Karla Doorbar, while Miki Mizutani, Lachlan Monaghan and Lewis Turner were all really good in it as well), and Laura-Jane Gibson and Valentin Olovyannikov as Red Riding Hood and the Wolf were my favourite of the pas de deux. (Apart, of course, from Elisha and Jamie to close.)

Overall I definitely enjoyed it and will be going to see more classical ballet in the future - Birmingham Royal Ballet are certainly a company I'd love to see again.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Friday Feature: Author Interview with Bridget Tyler

One of my favourite contemporaries of a red hot year has been Bridget Tyler's Drummer Girl. I was thrilled to get an interview with her for the Bookbag a few months ago, but haven't had a chance to upload it here after the blogging break I took - here it is!

  •  When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?
Bridget Tyler: Interesting question! I happen to know a lot of people of all ages and types who've read the book (and I hope there are many, many more I don't know) so I hope that it appeals to lots of different sorts of people. The amazing thing about the beautiful design job that Templar did on the book itself that it feels like it has a character all to itself when you hold it in your hands. You open the pages and you can FEEL Lucy and her friends. The book makes you want to hang out with it, and I love that.
  • I was hooked on Drummer Girl from the awesome opening pages, which see Lucy find her friend Harper dead in a swimming pool. Did you always know you were going to open with that scene, or did you ever consider starting at the beginning of the story?
BT: Actually, that scene was much longer when I started writing it. We saw Lucy show up at the house with Lucy and Iza and talked to the police before she actually saw Harper. But as I worked, I realized that we didn't need all of that. A big piece of this book rests in the developing relationship between Lucy and Harper who is equal parts mentor, friend and enemy for her. Starting with the moment that Lucy realizes that relationship is lost just felt right.
  • While Drummer Girl is your first novel, you've got a strong background in writing - particularly as a writer for hit TV series Burn Notice. What's the main difference between writing a novel and writing for TV?
BT: The words! In a novel, the words are incredibly important. They paint the world around you, create the emotions, set the pace and give the characters life. The words are important when you're writing TV as well, but in an entirely different way. The words in a TV script aren't the medium of the art form - they're a sketch that lets the cast and crew create the painting that is the show.
  • Music is at the centre of Drummer Girl, of course - but did you listen to any when writing it? If so, what's the soundtrack?
BT: Oh yes, I always listen to music while I write. For Drummer, that was a lot of rock and roll (naturally). Everything from the Beatles to No Doubt to Kate Nash to White Stripes – basically, anything with lots of energy. I love movie soundtracks too. Lately I'm very into the Avengers soundtrack, and when I'm writing intensely I pretty much just put the soundtracks of Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice on loop – it's fantastic.
  • BB: Which of the five girls from Crush is most like you?
BT: I think I'm a mix of Iza and Lucy, or at least I was when I was a teenager. I was a little on the shy and academic side, in High School, but I wasn't as reserved or sheltered as Iza is. I was more like Lucy in that respect – comfortable with who I was, even though I still didn't really know what I was capable of. That's the nice thing about looking back on high school - you realize how very much more you can be than your high school self ever expected.
  • One of my favourite characters from Drummer Girl was Alexander, the producer who becomes something of a mentor to Lucy. Which person in your life would you say has taught you the most about writing?
BT: Well I've never met him in person, but Christopher Vogler wrote a wonderful book called The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers that really inspired me when I was in college and shaped a lot of how I look at writing and story telling. When I first read the book I emailed Mr. Vogler to tell him how much I liked it and how interested I was in the ideas he was laying out. He very kindly emailed me back with further reading suggestions. I never forgot the fact that he took the time to email me, and I've always tried to be equally open and helpful to young writers who ask me questions about the craft or my work.
  • If you could host a dinner party, which four musicians and four literary people (authors or characters) would you invite?
BT: Oh goodness, there are so many to choose from! Musicians… I'd say Paul McCartney, Beyonce Knowles, John Williams and Chopin. As for literary figures… Ann McCaffrey, William Gibson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett.
  • I'd say about three quarters of my favourite books recently have been written in first person - Drummer Girl is one of the relatively few third person reads I've really loved, partly because it jumps around so many different points of view. Who was your favourite character to write about?
BT: It's funny, I actually considered writing Drummer Girl in first person. But the other girls were all so interesting that I just had to tell their story as well as Lucy's. I think my favorite character to write was actually Iza. Her story is so full of those lovely moments of discovery and romance that it was just a joy to write. I think the scene that most affected me was Harper's finally scene, which was wonderful to write but in a totally different way.
  • What should fans of Drummer Girl be reading while they wait anxiously for more from you?
BT: I've been enjoying Kiersten White's Paranormalcy series – they're contemporary fantasy novels about a girl who discovers that she may have more in common with the “monsters” she hunts than the people she works for. They're SUPER fun, and, like Drummer Girl, they portray a very real teenage girl struggling with very ordinary teenage things, despite her extraordinary life. That's why I think Drummer Girl fans will like it!
  • What's next for Bridget Tyler?
BT: As I type this I'm in the production office for my pilot, Horizon, which we're shooting in the hopes of making it into a television show for USA Networks next year. I'm also working on my next novel, which hopefully you'll be able to read soon!

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Classic Children's/YA: Drina by Jean Estoril

For the third in my series on 'older' children's and YA books, I've chosen my all-time favourite.

Drina series by Jean Estoril (Pen name of Mabel Esther Allan)

Number of books: 11 (Starting with Ballet for Drina, 1957, finishing with Drina Ballerina, 1991)

Availability: Out of print, sadly. However the first five are easy enough to track down cheaply second-hand. Later books, which were reprinted less, can get expensive - two copies of the final volume, Drina Ballerina, went for £25 or so each on eBay recently.

The Premise: Drina desperately wants to be a ballet dancer, but her grandparents disapprove. Eventually, she persuades them to change their minds, and the series follows her and her friends through their time at the Dominick Ballet School. 

Why I Really Like It: I've just reread these books - the third time, I think, that I've read them in order as a series (although I've read most of them several times more individually.) For me, they're as near to perfection as any series of books have ever been. I first read them when I was in primary school and my friend Donna was really into ballet. Her mum bought her all of these one by one - they were being reprinted at the time, by MacDonald and Co, in gorgeous editions. I think that I originally started reading them after she did, but between me being even more desperate to find out what happened next than she was and me being a quicker reader I'm fairly sure she was kind enough to let me borrow the last three or four before she'd read them.

Anyway, my reread finished in Red Lion Square - where Drina attends school for most of the series - after reading most of the last two books on the bus into London. It was a surprisingly emotional moment for me, and I have to be honest and say that I felt more of a high on reading it yet again than I've got from any of the many books I've read for the first time this year.

So what is it that make this such an incredible series? As with Jennings I'm sure nostalgia plays at least some part in it, but even trying to divorce myself from my childhood memories of them, I think they're still stunning. For a start, the portrayal of the adult characters - Drina's grandmother, who's loving but strict, her grandfather - often taking a back seat to his more forceful wife but able to fight Drina's corner when she needs it - and Mr Dominick and Marianne Volonaise, who run the Dominick Ballet Company - is far better than in most children's books, especially of this era. 

Then there's the character development and long-running story arcs. Reading them all quite close together, it's fascinating to see how we get hints of upcoming storylines a few books in advance. I'm trying to be very non-specific on spoilers here, but it hopefully doesn't ruin anything to say that Queenie and Drina's rivalry, Terza Lorencz's flight from Lynzonia and career as both a dancer and an author, Drina's romance with Grant, Jenny Pilgrim's family's problems, and Drina's grandfather's health issues are all memorable plots which develop throughout most of the series. Similarly, the development of Drina's friendships, as she grows apart from people as well as making new friends, is wonderful. Drina herself is an exquisite main character, but so many others are also really well-written. 

They also - along with the Sadler's Wells and Satin Slippers series - inspired the beginnings of a love for ballet in me. I've been to Sadler's Wells several times recently, seeing the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and the wonderful charity gala headlined by the breathtaking Sergei Polunin. It's been a fabulous experience and it all started when I picked up the first of these books.

Best Books: All of them. If I was absolutely forced to choose, Drina's Dancing Year as it introduces most of the main characters, Drina Dances in New York as it introduces Grant (swoon!) and Drina Ballerina for being a wonderful ending. 

Who It Will Appeal To: The obvious comparison is to another classic ballet series, Lorna Hill's Sadler's Wells books - if you liked them, you'll love these. I think fans of Lyn Gardner's really enjoyable Stage School series will like these as well.

Others By The Same Author: Nothing else as Estoril; well over 100 under her real name, and others as Priscilla Hagon and Anne Pilgrim. Wood Street and Pine Street series are perhaps the best known - I've read one of the Pine Street books and it was enjoyable enough, although I've never felt the need to track down the rest. 

Monday, 14 October 2013

My Week in London - 6th - 12th October

I've been considering this feature for a while, and having been to a film and a book event and seen two musicals in the last week, it seemed as good a time as any to launch it. So, here's My Week In London.

Kicking off with a couple of book-related things, I went to see How I Live Now at the Curzon Soho on Sunday 6th October. I was really looking forward to this one, and the Curzon is probably my favourite ever cinema. (Exeter Picturehouse, Curzon Mayfair, Prince Charles Cinema and Old Market Hall in Shrewsbury would be the others in my top 5.) That said, I was rather disappointed by the adaptation of one of my all time favourite books. There are lots of good things about it - Saoirse Ronan is superb as Daisy, while Harley Bird is outstanding as Piper. In addition, there's a brilliant soundtrack and Kevin McDonald's direction does a great job of building up the tension as war comes ever closer. However, for me the attraction between Daisy and Eddie was too quick, and I think dropping Osbert's character from the book and aging up Eddie rather backfired in my view. Eddie seems boring to me (although in fairness my Twitter stream has a lot of people who really liked him.) Meanwhile, as brilliant as Ronan's performance is, Daisy's unique voice from the book was never likely to be captured on film, and has been reduced to voices in her head. While I seem to be in the minority, I'd suggest waiting for the TV screening rather than rushing out to the cinema to see it.

On Monday 7th October I was lucky enough to be able to see Maureen Johnson and James Dawson in conversation at Waterstones Piccadilly, in an event chaired by Adam Lancaster. After originally thinking I'd be working on that evening, a last-minute timetable change worked in my favour, meaning I could snap up one of the last tickets for a sold-out event - and I was very glad I did! Billed as a 'Battle of the Sexes', the talk had less conflict than that suggests, as James and Maureen are in agreement over many of the things they mentioned. It was still fascinating, though, as they discussed everything from covers on books, and why Maureen's early readers may have thought she was obsessed with abs, to the importance - or lack of it - of gender in YA. I'm terrible at recapping these events, but it was absolutely fascinating. I've met James a couple of times before, and loved both Hollow Pike and Cruel Summer, but was surprised by how entertaining a public speaker he is. Maureen seemed slightly shyer than she does on Twitter, at least for the first few minutes, but was absolutely hilarious, and the evening gave me a huge amount of laughs - mainly at "Beach read!" and "cancer Nazi books". I hadn't been planning on buying anything, but given how fabulous Maureen was, it would have seemed rude not to get one of her books and ask her to sign it, and Rhys from Thirst For Fiction and Bella of Cheezyfeet Books raved about her Shades of London series so much that I just had to buy The Name of The Star. As well as seeing those two again, it was great to meet Debbie from Snuggling on the Sofa for the first time, and I was able to lend her my copy of the wonderful In Bloom by Matthew Crow, as I'd finished it that morning. Also really cool to meet Caroline Fielding and Katherine Woodfine.

I wandered into London with no real plans on Tuesday 8th October (it's the only day I finish early, and it seemed a shame to waste it by not going in.) I managed to pick up a cheap ticket for The Light Princess, the Tori Amos musical currently running in previews at The National Theatre. I've somehow managed to be aware of Amos for years without really knowing much about her music, but I was seriously impressed by this. The first act is perhaps on the long side - I think shaving 20 minutes of it would perhaps help - but it's well-performed, has some nice songs and a strong plot, and it might be the most visually stunning show I've seen in ages. The story is that of a princess who starts to float after her mother dies, refusing to join in the crocodile tears for the queen, and of the prince of a neighbouring country who's known as the solemn prince when he grieves for his own mother. Taking place years after the deaths of the queens, with the two leads as teens, this tells the story of what happens when the pair meet. The floating princess is brilliantly played by Rosalie Craig, while the way in which she floats is fabulous. (Not going into details as I think the theatre are trying to keep it fairly quiet.) Of the rest of the cast, Nick Hendrix is a great male lead with superb chemistry with Craig, and Amy Booth-Steel is excellent as the Princess's servant and friend Piper. As for the sets and costumes - absolutely wonderful, particularly the lake.

I finished off the week with another musical, getting to see a preview of From Here To Eternity at The Shaftesbury with my parents as they came down for the weekend. I knew little about this 1941 Pearl Harbor-set musical, based on the classic film (or more precisely, I think, on the same novel as the film was), but have been looking forward to it for weeks. First impressions were a little disappointing - it has a first half which, like the Light Princess, could perhaps do with losing 20 minutes or so. (It goes for eighty minutes and surely could get the point across in an hour.) The second act, though, is absolutely phenomenal. Darius Campbell and Robert Lonsdale's country-tinged I Ain't Where I Wanna Be Blues is brilliant and Ryan Sampson as Maggio steals every scene he's in, particularly with his outstanding performance of I Love The Army. As war grows closer, the show gets better and better, and The Boys of '41 had me close to tears, with the reprise nearly pushing me over the edge - surely the best new song of the last 5 years, if not longer, in the West End? In addition the choreography throughout the show is uniformly strong, and there's not a weak link in the cast. Well worth seeing!

Friday, 11 October 2013

Friday Feature: Author Interview with Julie Berry

When Templar approached me to ask if I was interested in running an interview with Julie Berry, author of All The Truth That's In Me, I jumped at the chance. However I was't expecting my new job to take quite so much time, so I was struggling to get questions written - luckily Georgia from Books and Writers JNR was able to help out by giving me a couple of questions after I bumped into her at a book signing for the wonderful James Dawson!

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

I imagine a girl reading the book secretly, curled up in her bedroom, or hiding in a nest of blankets on her couch when no one is home. She’s in her pajamas, sans makeup or hairdo. If she wears contacts, right now she’s in her glasses. She’s all alone, so that she can immerse herself completely in her story, and so that she’s not encumbered by wondering how others see her or what they think of her. Appearance, reputation, and popularity don’t matter here. It’s just her, the book, and me.

2. I thought that Judith's voice was an interesting one - who are your favourite narrators in YA fiction?

[I’m going to pass on this one, only because I’m so desperately behind in my YA reading that my answers won’t seem very current. Eek.]

3. As well as Judith's voice, All The Truth That's In Me has a highly original plot and setting. Which did you think of first, the girl unable to speak, or the society where she lived?

Judith came first, but the world she inhabited followed close behind. They’re so deeply connected here. If Judith had lived in a different world, I hope she wouldn’t face the same silencing. If she lived in another world, perhaps this wouldn’t have happened to her in the first place.

4. One more question about the writing style - it's split into numbered sections, many of which are extremely short - I've seen a couple of reviews which compare them to Biblical verses. What made you decide to break up the narrative like this?

I needed a way to separate and designate these short sections, one that felt timeless and didn’t draw a lot of attention to itself. Arabic numerals felt too modern, almost technical, but Roman numerals just felt right. People have asked me since if I was thinking of how volumes of poetry are sometimes organized. I wasn’t consciously, but perhaps unconsciously. It’s not a novel in poetry, but I like that association.

5. You've written several books for slightly younger readers prior to All The Truth That's In Me. Is there anything different about the way you write for teens?

When I write for younger readers, whimsy and imaginative play informs a lot of what I do, though serious drama and tension can appear. When I write for teens, thus far I’ve allowed myself to delve more deeply, more seriously, into emotionally raw situations, though whimsy can also appear. The same elements are there each time; it’s a question of proportion.

6. Looking at your blog, I love the bookmarks your sister, the incredibly talented illustrator Sally Gardner, has designed for you, and the discussion about how they're created is fascinating. Is working with your sister easy, or do you argue?

Thank you! I love those bookmarks too. Sally and I get along really well creatively (and in other ways). We both have strong personalities and very clear ideas of how things ought to be, but were also very respectful of each others’ abilities and input. I love collaborating with Sally, and hope to have lots more opportunities to do so.

7. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what was the soundtrack for All The Truth...?

I’m a silent writer. Coffee shops bug me as writing sites because it’s hard for me to tune out the music. I love music, which is probably why it distracts me. I want to enjoy it if it’s there, but that makes it hard for me to focus on my work. For me, the essence of good writing is listening to what your creative mind has to tell you, and (again, for me), listening favors silence.

8. While writing this interview, I bumped into fellow book blogger Georgia, of the fabulous Books and Writers JNR site, and as I knew she loved All The Truth... asked her for a couple of questions. She'd love to know why you chose the writing style that addressed the reader as one of the characters?

Hi Georgia! The “you” in the narrative was always Lucas, to me, and I liked the mystery readers would face of figuring out who Lucas is and what he means to Judith. But I also like it that readers are forced early on to identify with Lucas because they share “you” with him. Since they’re already inside Judith’s head, identifying with her isn’t hard. In this way I hope to achieve a closeness with both characters.

9. And also from her - if you can answer it without spoiling things, feel free to ignore if you can't! - what do you imagine happens to Judith after the next page?

(ANSWER CENSORED BY JIM! Highlight the line below to read.
Heh heh heh … Well, they just got married, right? 

10. What's next for Julie Berry

More exercise would be good, and maybe a bubble bath now and then. My house is in desperate need of cleaning. Creatively, I have my hands in a couple of different projects at various stages, including a YA I’m working on for Viking (the US publisher of All the Truth That’s in Me). Details haven’t yet been announced so stay tuned!

Thanks for taking part in this interview, Julie! 

Julie Berry can be found on her website - All The Truth That's In Me is published by Templar Books, who can be found here.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Thursday Thoughts: YA Yeah Yeah Recommendations

I accepted a few books in exchange for considering them for recommendation requests a while ago, and unfortunately circumstances have stopped me getting them done. I've decided to combine mini-recommendations of three of them here, along with Weirdos vs Quimboids and The City's Son, which I really enjoyed.

Weirdos vs Quimboids by Natasha Desborough is frank, frequently fairly filthy, and flipping funny!  I laughed out loud a lot, but am not prepared to admit which parts I was laughing at. (Although it's pretty close to 'all of it'!) When The Daily Mail get their hands on this one, they'll be running an outraged article about the disgusting state of YA today. However along with the rude humour, we get a great trio of friends, a bit of romance, and a story about a 'weirdo' finding herself, with some brilliant character development. I've heard a rumour that the upcoming sequel is even funnier. I'm finding this rather hard to believe, but am looking forward to finding out!

The Million Dollar Gift by Ian Somers is a strong action thiller about a boy with the hidden gift of telekinesis. Entering a contest which challenges people to prove they have superhuman skills. Ross enters the contest in an attempt to break free of his mundane life, but a good performance in it could turn out to be only the beginning of his problems. Ross's relationship with the man who becomes his mentor is excellent, the plot has a few real surprises in (although it's fairly obvious from the start that the contest is extremely dubious, once Ross realises this it gets much harder to predict what's coming next,) and it's a quick read which had me glued from start to finish. I also really enjoyed the clever world-building here as Somers does a great job of explaining the 'gifts' to his readers.

Somers' book is from O'Brien Press, as is Missing Ellen by Natasha Mac a'Bhaird. This contemporary goes back and forth between narrator Maggie struggling to cope with her friend Ellen's disappearance, and flashbacks showing her earlier friendship with Ellen leading up to the time she went missing. Maggie is a strong enough character, and Mac a'Bhaird's writing style is engaging enough, that it's a good read. Having said that, it's on the predictable side and Ellen and Maggie (particularly Maggie) seem rather young for their age. That's not a deal-breaker, though, and this is still worth checking out.

Skulk by Rosie Best and The City's Son by Tom Pollock have several similarities. They're both set in version of London with supernatural elements added - shapeshifters in Best's book, and almost indescribable things in Pollock's. They both have strong heroines who love graffiti. They're both books which have me desperate to read the sequels. And of all the hundreds of teen fantasy novels I've read in my life, I think they may be about the two best at melding the protagonists' 'normal' problems to the fantasy world they find themselves involved in.

The City's Son sees Beth Bradley stumble into a secret city where the ghosts of trains rush around, and glass-skinned dancers light the streets. It's notable for exceptionally strong character arcs for several characters - Beth herself, her father and her best friend all develop brilliantly. If anything, my one issue with this one is that I think I would probably have enjoyed it even more if I'd read it fifteen years ago when I was younger and had more of an imagination. Darn you, Tom Pollock, for not writing it a couple of decades earlier!

Best's Skulk also sees its heroine plunged into a secret London, where raggedy groups of people transform into animals. The shapechangers have never got on with each other, but with a mysterious stranger trying to claim the strange gemstone Meg was given when she inherited the shift, she's forced to try to lead this ragtag bunch. The main strength is a wonderful narrator in Meg - bullied by a tyrannical mother for being a size sixteen and not fitting in with the image her family are trying to project, and catapulted into a world she doesn't understand. However it also has a brilliant plot and some great supporting characters.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Classic Children's/YA: Andy Robb on The Fionovar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay

Having kicked off my new Classic Children's/YA feature last week, I was keen to get other people involved as soon as possible. I was thrilled when awesome author Andy Robb, who writes the brilliant Geekhood books, offered to be my first guest poster on the feature! He's here to tell us about a fantasy trilogy which I'd never heard of before but which sounds fascinating.

The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay

Number of books: Three; it’s your good old classic fantasy trilogy, starting with The Summer Tree, going through The Wandering Fire and winding up with The Darkest Road. I read the trilogy one summer in 1986, when I was doing a lot of train journeys from Devon to Yorkshire and back again.

Availability: I checked on the Waterstones website and they’re still out there. Which isn’t bad for a bunch of books that were published in the ‘80’s.

The Premise: Five students from our world are transported to the world of Fionavar, where they get involved in its past, present and future, in a big way. Think Lord of the Rings on a slightly smaller scale, but adding regular folk in the mix. Maybe like a more adult version of the Narnia books.

Why I Really Like It: This was one of the first series of books that made you aware of the fragility of life – because the characters were expendable; people who you didn’t think would be going anywhere suddenly did, which made the story a much-less comfortable ride that some of the fantasy books I’d read at the time.

I was a big fantasy-head at the time. After having read Lord of the Rings, I went out hunting for more – probably trying to recreate that ‘cherry-high’ you get when you fist discover a Big Book of Great Importance. It did mean I read some right old tat – and then I bumped into this one.
It’s a weird blend of classic fantasy and grim fairy tale, bound-up with a look at how encountering this sort of thing might have an effect on ordinary people – but without all the self-loathing from the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The people you meet in these books are just like us; prick the surface and a whole lot comes bubbling out.

It was a while after reading them that I found out something about the author that made a whole lot of sense: Kay cut his teeth as an editor, working alongside Christopher Tolkien to edit his father’s, The Silmarillion. Once he’d written his own stuff, he commented in an interview that “to be successful in fantasy, you have to take the measure of Tolkien – work with his strengths and away from his weaknesses.”

Best Books: Nostalgically, I’d have to say the first – but I lapped these up as they came out. But the first, because it threw me into a world where nothing was guaranteed. It was also one of the first books that really shocked me into understanding parallels between external events and internal development. Cool stuff.

Who It Will Appeal To: Fantasy-heads. If you’ve done LoTR and want something similarly filling, go for this. If you haven’t done LoTR because it looks a bit daunting, this is a great way to find your feet in the genre.

Others by the Same Author: Tigana. If you liked the Fionavar Tapestry, this is well worth a look – especially as your lifeline to our world has been severed; it’s unadulterated fantasy, which is a Good Thing, in my humble, Geeky opinion.

Andy Robb is the author of the excellent Geekhood series. He has a website and can also be found on Twitter.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Sunday Special: Dream UKYA Collaborations

I was wandering around various London bookshops today after watching the film of How I Live Now (sadly disappointing) and stumbled on a real curiosity - Ask A Policeman, by six members of The Detection Club.

The Detection Club, for those who haven't heard of them, were (according to Wiki, in fact, still are!) a group of mystery writers in 1930s England. They collaborated on this novel - as well as a few others. This one sees the murder of a barbarous newspaper tycoon, with the Home Secretary inviting four famous detectives to try and solve the case without asking a policeman. After the set-up by John Rhode, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell and Helen Simpson took over to write the adventures of their four detectives as they went about solving the case - the twist being that they swapped characters, so Lord Peter Wimsey, for example, was written not by Sayers but by Anthony Berkeley.

I didn't get it - partly because it's had great reviews for the skilful way in which the authors parody each other, so I think I'd like to read some of the original stories by Simpson and Berkeley before reading it. It did get me thinking about collaborations though, and brought to mind a comment made by Phil Earle at the wonderful event on Wednesday night in which he interviewed David Levithan. Levithan, of course, is well-known for working with Andrea Cremer, John Green and Rachel Cohn, in addition to his acclaimed solo novels. Phil mentioned this kind of thing is quite rare in the UK - which got me thinking, who would I most like to see team up?

In no particular order

1. Andy Robb and Holly Smale. A no brainer, surely? They're frequently doing Geekathons together (which I keep missing - argh!) Surely they must be doing some writing? I'd love to see Archie and Harriet meet!

2. Keris Stainton and Keren David. The pair run the wonderful UKYA site together, along with Susie Day. Susie and Keris probably seems like a more predictable fit, but I'd love to see Keren's hard-hitting thrillers mixed with Keris's wonderful romances.

3. Rosie Best and Laura Lam. (Before anyone says anything, I know Laura's from California, but she lives in Scotland so I'm including her somewhat dubiously.) I love Strange Chemistry as an imprint as they keep putting out fantastic books. Rosie Best's Skulk and Laura Lam's Pantomime are my two favourite yet, both with vividly drawn worlds and great narrators. I'd love to see what they could come up with together!

4. Curtis Jobling and Will Hill. These two have been responsible for more sleepless nights than any other authors, I think, because I routinely spend about five days before getting my hands on a new Wereworld or Department 19 book thinking "Oh wow, nearly here!" I'd be intrigued to see what they came up with together.

5. Susan Cooper and Jenny Nimmo. The authors of two of my all-time favourite children's fantasy series (The Dark Is Rising and The Snow Spider), which I loved back in the 1980s, are still going strong all these years later. There's been a marked lack in fantasy books set in my home country of Wales over the years since those two fabulous series were published - it would be incredible to see the two of them put this right with a joint effort. (Oh, and someone may point out that if I'm including Laura Lam as she lives in Scotland, I probably shouldn't count Cooper, born in England but now residing in America. Tough, I'm greedy!)

So, what would everyone else's dream UKYA collaborations be? Leave me a comment!

Friday, 4 October 2013

Friday Feature: Interview with Jessica Spotswood

Really pleased to present my first author interview for a few weeks, with the brilliant Jessica Spotswood, author of the Cahill Witch Chronicles!

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

Honestly, I think of twelve or thirteen year old me – desperate for stories about clever, independent girls who have fantastic adventures but also get in a fair amount of swoony kissing, often while dealing with fraught issues with families or friends.

2. I really enjoyed the interaction between the three sisters at the centre of the Cahill Witch Chronicles. Who’s your favourite fictional family?

I love the March sisters of Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. There are some ways in which LW (which I loved as a child) feels very dated now, but Louisa May Alcott was brilliant at capturing that mix of love and rivalry between sisters. I also adore the Weasleys from the Harry Potter books. Who doesn’t?

I definitely do! Weasleys are fab, as are the Marches.

3. I also found the setting of the Cahill Witch Chronicles – an alternate history version of New England at the end of the nineteenth century - to be really intriguing. How much research did you have to do?

Thank you! I did lots of research into the fashion, food, home d├ęcor, architecture, and technology of the late Victorian era. I wanted to capture that sumptuous, elegant world of carriages and corsets and candlesticks, even as I gave it a little twist.

4. On that subject, what’s your favourite fictional setting?

Hogwarts! Hands-down. If I could visit any fictional setting, I’d want to spend a day at Hogwarts: owl delivery, McGonagall’s Transfiguration class, Charms, Herbology, Care of Magical Creatures with Hagrid, time for exploring the castle, and of course a Quidditch game!

Sounds like a plan! Would certainly join you in the classes there. 

5. Finn must be a dream boy for most YA readers. Not only is he sensitive and charming, his family have a book store! If you owned your own book store, what would be the five books you’d be trying to sell to everyone who came in?

Oh, I love this question! I’d recommend my 4 favorite books so far this year: OUT OF THE EASY by Ruta Sepetys, which is the story of the clever, wistful daughter of a prostitute who dreams of escaping the tawdry French Quarter of 1950s New Orleans for an Eastern college; THE LUCY VARIATIONS by Sara Zarr, which is a brilliant exploration of the relationship between love and art and what we owe to our families and what we owe to ourselves, told via a prickly teenaged pianist; RELIC by Renee Collins, which features a imaginative version of the Old West in which people mine for magical relics instead of gold; and BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA by April Genevieve Tucholke, which is moody and atmospheric and creepy-lovely. And then I’d recommend one of my all-time favorite books, CHIME by Franny Billingsley, which I feel like not enough people have read yet!

Some fab recs there - I hadn't heard of RELIC or BETWEEN THE DEVIL OR THE DEEP BLUE SEA, so I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for them.

6. Your website is absolutely gorgeous – I particularly love the purple flowers and the beautiful font for your name. How much input did you have into its design?

Thank you! I really wanted to incorporate roses in some way, since the rose garden is an important setting in BORN WICKED and since Cate loves her flowers! I think they’ve very romantic. I chose the haunted house and tree pictures from stock photos to give it a witchy feel. But my web designer (Maddee at chose the gorgeous purple color and the design for my name, and she made the rose border at the top look so pretty.

7. Speaking of your website, your reading list there says your goal is 100 books. That’s seriously impressive – how do you fit in the time around writing, and where do you do most of your reading?

I think I’ve recently downgraded my reading goal to 75, because I have no hope of reaching 100 this year! Alas. I wish I were much better at finding more time for reading – I spend entirely too much time on twitter and Facebook and reading random articles online! I do most of my reading in bed, late at night, while my husband and my cat are snoring away.

Agree completely about online articles taking time away from reading books - I keep falling into that trap too!

8. I also noticed on your reading list that you’ve read a couple by Julia Quinn this year. She’s one of the few authors who can drag me away from YA to read adult novels! Are you a fan, and is there anyone else writing historical romances like hers that you could recommend?

Yes! I still have to read the last two Bridgerton books, but I love the first 6. My favorite is #3, AN OFFER FROM A GENTLEMAN, which is a bit of a Cinderella story and features swoony, artistic Benedict Bridgerton. If you’re also fond of Regency romances, I highly recommend Sarah MacLean’s series beginning with 9 RULES TO BREAK WHEN ROMANCING A RAKE, and Eloisa James’ Essex Sisters series.

The MacLean has been on my list for ages because the title is just fabulous - I'm glad the book lives up to it!

9. If you could ask any author any question, what would you ask and who would you ask it to?

I’d ask Kristin Cashore to tell me about her world-building process. GRACELING, FIRE, and BITTERBLUE are some of my favorite books ever, and I’m in awe of her complex, wonderful writing.

10. What’s next for Jessica Spotswood?

That’s a fantastic question! I’m waiting for copyedits on SISTERS’ FATE, the third book in the Cahill Witch Chronicles, which will be out August 2014. Now I’m turning my attention to putting together a proposal for something totally new! Stay tuned for more info later this fall!

Thanks so much for that wonderful interview, Jessica!

Jessica can be found online at her blog, on Twitter and Facebook. You can also check out the Cahill Witch Inspiration pinboard!