Wednesday, 29 December 2010

In Memory: N M Browne

Today would have been my father’s birthday - a once forgettable date, lost between Christmas and New Year which led to rather a meagre birthday present haul. I never forget it now. He died twenty years ago, a few months before his 58th birthday and I still miss him desperately.
He was a painter who gave up painting for twenty years - from my early childhood until his early (and too brief) retirement. He gave up because it was impossible to combine painting with earning enough to support us. He was good at what he did and exhibited widely before I was born. Would he have ‘ made it’ if he’d carried on? Maybe. Did he regret the sacrifice ? I don't think so.
Anyway, the struggle to find time to teach, paint, and be a family man was too much. I still have a portrait of me he began when I was about four. I outgrew the dress I was wearing before he was able to finish it, which says it all. Consequently, I grew up with the knowledge that doing what you love is a privilege not everyone can afford.
My father always fostered my ambitions, even my mad decision to give up teaching, study for an MBA and become a business woman. He thought I was bonkers, but supported me none the less. He died before I discovered what he had always known - that I wasn’t really that kind of person.
I began writing only after his death, when suddenly life seemed short, precarious and altogether too precious to waste on work I hated. I had always wanted to write ‘one day,’ but dying days are certain and ‘one days’ aren’t.
He never saw me published and never met three of my four children.
Whenever things go badly with my writing, which if I’m honest is often, I wonder what his advice would be. Would he tell me to stick with what I love, to seize the day, or to face up to economic realities as he had to do?
I have no answer to this particular conundrum: I only wish I could ask him for his.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

New Year, New Publisher Catherine Johnson

How's your year been? I think I have had the pre-requisite number of ups and downs. I don't think I would be still writing if I weren't a glass half full sort of person, one who thinks something good is just around the corner and it will all work out in the end, even if my tax bill is looming and there's now sign of a holiday this year...
Anyway here they are...

1. New publisher! Thanks to Frances Lincoln for taking me on and thinking Brave New Girl is 'funny and warm'. Out in September which, I know, is aaagges away!
2. Jo De Giuia at Victoria Park Books. A woman who works so hard for books and writers and whose shop must rank as the best specialist children's bookshop in London and it's on my doorstep. Thanks to her and Dylan Calder for StarLit and for a new London wide chldren's festival coming next year called Pop-Up.
3. Lovely books! This year I enjoyed Gillian Philips; Firebrand, Let's Get Lost by Sarra Manning, The Long Song by Andrea Levy and Ottoline at Sea by Chris Riddell, Slightly Invisible by Lauren Child and There are Cats in This Book by Viviane Schwarz.
4. I am still writing. I have not had to get a proper job for ages. I feel totally blessed.
5. Meeting lovely writer friends. This could be a lonely job, but it isn't because we get to chat. How lucky am I!

1. No book out this year. The Barrington Stoke has been pushed back, and due to being dropped by Random House I have had a gap....
2. Not finishing the book I was supposed to finish....well I sort of finished it once and am dragging my feet a bit *sigh*
3. Still no Pony. When I was around eight I read a story about a girl who opened her bedroom window on Christmas morning and saw a pony waiting for her outside. This has never happened to me.
4. Katie Price selling more books than me. Ho hum.
5. Don't get me started on the new government!

HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all, my all the words flow and may you never get stuck!
xxx Catherine

What bookish delights did you get, or give for Christmas? - Linda Strachan

Christmas is a time for giving and what better gift to a lover of words than   a good book, or two, to curl up with.

I received a variety of different book gifts -

I love cookery books and I was delighted by the gift of Mums Recipes Two,
a cookbook with some interesting recipes which helps raise funds for MUMs.

The main focus of MUMs is to help reduce maternal and infant deaths in Malawi. The first volume raised £100,000 and there are now three volumes.  You can find out more about them and the project

Michelle Lovric's The  Undrowned Child was another present, and I am looking forward to this trip to Venice


 Mark Z Danieleweski's  House of Leaves -  a large tome that is dauntingly heavy and on initial inspection it has a very strange layout.

I'm not at all sure what it is about or if it is something I can engage with, especially at the moment when I am trying to keep my head clear until my current work in progress is completed.

So it may have to wait on the shelf for a bit,. On the other hand I am curious to find out about all this strange layout. I feel as if it is a challenge..... so watch this space!

 I also gave some books as gifts and among those were
Gillian Philip's Firebrand                                                 

Lob by Linda Newbery

 and  Cathy MacPhail's Grass  


So, what bookish gift did you give or receive this Christmas?

Dead Boy Talking (Strident Publishing)  'will knock you off your feet with the speed of its delivery and the raw, tough realism..'  The Bookette
Writing for Children (A & C Black) ideal reading for all aspiring and newly published writers
For younger children the Hamish McHaggis series (GW Publishing)
Follow Linda's blog  - Bookwords -
Visit her website

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Support for Bookstart - Elen Caldecott

There is no post scheduled for today. However, the last few days has seen a 100% cut in funding to Booktrust's book gifting programmes, so I feel compelled to post.
There are articles in the press about it written by Michael Rosen and Catherine Johnson.
There is also a petition you can sign if you disagree.

Right, the news headlines are over, so I'm going back to my pile of Christmas books and a Thorntons box big enough to exert its own gravitational pull on the tides. Happy Christmas!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas won't be Christmas... Miriam Halahmy

 ...without any presents, “ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
Growing up reading Little Women is one of my most enduring memories of Christmas. My mother gave me her copy when I was nine. It had been a birthday present to her from her siblings when she was a child before the war and I passed it on to my daughter.

Mum’s book even appeared in The Independent. They did a feature on lists by well known people and then invited readers to send in their own. This is mine.

Five things I can’t live without (The Independent 26.8.04)

My polar library
Twice daily reflux pills
Tap water – yes, London vintage
Mum’s pre-war copy of Little Women
with a single black and white plate
him indoors

Which character were you? I was Jo, climbing trees in ankle length skirts, getting into scrapes, reading all day on her bed with a bag of apples, my head full of dreams about becoming a writer. I couldn’t be good little Beth, Amy was far too pretty and spoilt and Meg was a woman!
Little Women were my surrogate sisters. In real life I was the sandwich between two lively brothers. Probably that explains a lot of the appeal of tomboy Jo. I used to follow my brothers up every tree, usually falling on the way down.

At nine I marvelled when Jo was told off for using slang by Amy, “we are a pretty jolly set....” Crikey! But fortunately when Jo and Amy scrap dear sweet Beth is there to make peace. “Bird in their little nests agree,” sang Beth.
I loved the narrator who spoke to us in the voice of a kindly aunt. “As young readers like to know how people look we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters, who sat knitting away in the twilight, while the December snow fell quietly without, and the fire crackled within.” Totally absorbing, I wouldn’t raise my eyes from the page until Mum yelled at me to lay the table.

Little Women takes us gently through adversity, poverty, separation through war, love, friendship, sibling rivalry, sibling loyalty and death. I still remember the first time I read about Beth’s brush with death and of course the terrible death of the Hummel baby. Through it all we learn to be a pilgrim with our packs on our bags. The religious stuff went over my head but I loved the challenge.

And then of course there is the boyfriend - gorgeous, funny, attentive, rich Laurie next door. He even has a piano for poor Beth! I never really understood why he and Jo didn’t get married but of course silly little Amy had to morph into sensible and mature before the dear reader would accept her as Laurie’s good wife.

If you have time over the festive season, join me in Christmas with the Little Women.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

My Monoglottal Stop - Charlie Butler

It’s shameful, really. Only 3% of books published in the UK in English are translated from other languages. By contrast, in most European countries the equivalent figure is between 30% and 40% - in Finland, 80%. In my travels around Europe over the last year or so I made a point of looking in on the children’s sections of bookshops, and the penetration of English-language books was very noticeable – and not only with the obvious suspects such as Rowling and Dahl. In the UK, however, while you will find classic writers such as Astrid Lindgren (though only the Pippi Longstocking books), Laurent de Brunhoff, Tove Jansson and Hergé, along with a very light sprinkling of contemporary stars such as Cornelia Funke, that really is about it.
Perhaps none of this would matter much if we were able to read foreign books in their original languages, but the British (and the English particularly) are notoriously bad at learning foreign tongues, so that route too is cut off. I’m no better than anyone else in this regard. At school I studied German for seven years, and French for three, and passed my exams with colours that fluttered bravely, even if they didn’t exactly fly. But within a few years the language learning part of my brain had seized up like a piece of neglected machinery. There are odd sprockets and cogs lying about, and a whole storehouse of disassembled facts, but the thought of being able to read an entire book in either of these languages – let alone reading one for pleasure – is a taunting dream.
I’m not proud of this. I come from, and later married into, a family of multi-linguists, and my deficit has always struck me as rather disgraceful. Moreover, as a writer I’m naturally fascinated by my own language, but English is such a mongrel that to be interested in it is necessarily to want to know about the vocabulary, history and grammar of French, German, Latin, Greek... Yet, although I’ve made occasional self-taught forays into Latin (not taught at my school), Welsh and Esperanto, I’ve never climbed further than the foothills of any of them. Whether this is due to lack of talent or of application is a subject of recurrent debate, but either way I don’t see the situation changing any time soon.
What have I lost thereby? As I suggest above, one thing is access to literature published in foreign languages, the vast majority of which is never translated. But I regret still more the slightly-rearranged view of the world that fluency in another language must afford: the chance to experience a sensibility that evolved out of a different history, in which such fundamental concepts as time and agency undergo a subtle tectonic shift, in which new distinctions appear like mountain ranges (‘“neuf” and “nouveau” both mean “new” in different senses! Who would have thought it?’) and others disappear beneath the surface of consciousness (‘They use “porter” for “carry” and “wear”? How on earth do they manage?’). I envy my father, who told me how, when he was a seventeen-year-old cycling across Europe in late August 1939 – not the best time to choose for a cycling holiday, but that’s another story – he stayed the night in a French farmhouse and dreamed, for the first time, in French. Even fifty years later, his excitement and pleasure were still palpable.
Each language holds up to the world a mirror made with a slightly different curvature. I can think of no better training for an imaginative writer than to walk through this linguistic funhouse, peering at oneself and seeing a cast of familiar strangers staring back. This more than anything else is why I regret the fact that, in the universal lottery, I was dealt the card of monoglottery.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Long night's journey into day - Anne Rooney

Today is the shortest day - or you could think of it as the longest night. The long, dark nights are a time for snuggling in the warm to read a good book. But they are also a time to write what we hope will turn out to be a good book. Some ideas need to over-winter, like seeds lying dormant through the cold months, getting ready to be written in sunlight. Others shine out with the holly berries and demand to be gathered immediately before they wrinkle and fade. I'd never noticed before, but I'm a very seasonal writer; I write ghost stories and gothic in winter, humour in summer. And this is a very gothic winter.

After the first really deep snow fall last week, I went outside with my daughters to find animal tracks in the garden. There were cat, mouse, fox, deer and rabbit prints as well as the usual birds. Snow is nature's Wikileaks - it reveals the hidden life you knew was there but had no proof of. I've used the revealingness of snow before in a ghost story (Soldier Boy), and I expect I'll use it again. Most ghost stories are set in winter, surely? Is it even possible to write something truly creepy that is set in bright sunlight and warmth?

Many years ago, I started a gothic novel while sitting in Cambridge University Library watching the snow swirling outside, snittering full snart. That novel took a very different turn in the end and moved so far from where it started that the original idea is still unwritten. This winter, I want to revive that old story. It begins in the morgue of Edinburgh hospital in December 1821 and ends somewhere in a frozen Russian cemetery in 2002. It is a dark, wintry story full of snow and death and revenge. I've thought about turning it into an opera libretto instead, though I haven't the first idea how to start an opera libretto so that probably won't happen. But it can only be written in winter. I'm in the mood for dark and terrible, it's become my natural medium, and I won't flinch from whatever horrors the story demands - as long as the snow still lies thick to reveal the footprints, the blood stains, the crumpled dark figure in the graveyard, the dead hand as white as the snow thrust up through the earth...

Are you a seasonal writer? Or can you write snow in summer and sun-drenched meadows in winter? I can't. Maybe this incapacity is why I tend to write such short stories - they have to be finished in their season, or hibernate until the following year. It's not just writing weather, it's mood - dark and gloomy rules the long, long night of the winter solstice.
Stroppy Author blog

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Bookette's BBC by Keren David

If you’re a British author and you find yourself getting more internet reviews in 2011 than ever before your books receive next year, it’s likely you’ve got one woman to thank. The Bookette is the alias of Becky, a school librarian from Essex, who manages to juggle a demanding job and her own writing ambitions with running one of the most popular children’s book blogs in Britain. She has nearly 500 followers on her blog - but is read by many more than that. Her reviews are always thoughtful and balanced, but she’s not scared to put the boot in when she feels she must. She’s a reviewer you can trust, and she brings her deep knowledge of children’s literature to the task of assessing new books.
She’s never satisfied with just reviewing alone though. She’s running a campaign to get Katherine Roberts’ Song Quest back in print, promoting it by organising a blog tour and a cover competition.
And her latest idea should shine a light on a lot of British books. The Bookette has launched a new meme - a feature that other bloggers sign up to - the British Books Challenge (BBC) 2011. This offers prizes and promotion to bloggers who sign up to read and review books by British authors, new and old, during 2011. The challenge is for British bloggers, who are encouraged to read 12 home-grown books; and to international bloggers who can read six for a ‘Winston Churchill’ or 12 for the full ‘Royal Family’. Read 50 British books and you qualify for a crown.
Becky has prize packs from British publishers to help promote the challenge, and she’s already signed up more than 40 bloggers for the challenge. If they all read and review an average of 10 books each, that’s 400 reviews. That’s a whole lot of internet buzz for all sorts of British authors, who can find it very difficult to get noticed at home or abroad.
So, on behalf of British authors generally - goodness, I never thought I'd be able to write that! - many thanks to Becky for the work she’s put in to organise this challenge. And thank you to all the book bloggers out there, who take time and much trouble to read and report on our efforts. You’re unpaid for all your hard work, but not unappreciated. In a world where review space in print media is ever-shrinking, your influence is growing every day.
And in the spirit of  her challenge, here are some British books I'm looking forward to reading in 2011:
The Opposite of Amber, by Gillian Philip; Jessie hearts NY by Keris Stainton, Kiss, Date, Love, Hate by Luisa Plaja, Hidden by Miriam Halahmy, Entangled by Cat Clarke,  Divine Freaks by Fiona Dunbar, A Year Without Autumn by Liz Kessler and  Sequins Stars and Spotlights by Sophia Bennett. How about you?

Friday, 17 December 2010

Dark Lords, Witch Queens, and Snow: Sue Purkiss

It's just stopped snowing. We very rarely get snow in this corner of Somerset; last year was the first time for many years that we'd had more than a sprinkling. Today, it seems we are in what for us is the extraordinary position of having some of the heaviest falls going. I don't think I've ever seen so much - certainly not here; great mounds and billows of the stuff.

A couple of weeks ago, we didn't have much, but it was so cold that what there was stayed on the ground. And then one day there was an amazing hoar frost. The hut where I write was festooned with cobwebs (outside, not inside, I'm happy to say) that looked as if they were made out of silver string. Here's one.

I took our dog, Jessie, for her usual walk up on the Mendips. We went up through the woods, then looped down over the hill, so that we were facing the view which stretches out across the Vale of Wedmore to Glastonbury Tor in the distance. (This is the view that's described at the end of my book Warrior King, through the eyes of King Alfred. The peace between him and the Danes was finalised at Wedmore.) There wasn't so much frost in the woods, but out in the open every tree, every twig, every blade of grass was thickly etched in white; it was magical. The sky wasn't clear, it was a mixture of greys: the sun was a silver gilt disc behind thin pearly grey cloud.

I tried to pick up a stone to throw for Jessie, but I couldn't shift it; it was frozen solid to the ground. It reminded me of The Grey King, in Susan Cooper's series, The Dark Is Rising, where the dog Pen is fixed unnaturally and immoveably to the ground by the power of the Grey Lord, channelled through a warestone, which is also held tight to the earth. I heard crows calling, and took a picture of them when they perched like black cut-outs on silvery branches. They seemed the only things moving in the silent lanscape, and I thought of the title book of the same series, where rooks are messengers of the dark, inhabiting an unnaturally frozen landscape.

There's some sort of link I'm trying to find, something to do with the way snow changes the feel of a landscape, concealing what is normally there and creating something new - between that, and what makes some of the best-loved children's books work. (There's Narnia, too, when Lucy et al first enter it: a glittering forest, enchanted by the witch so that it's 'always winter, but never Christmas.') Snow changes what happens, we all know that: ordinary life holds its breath. You can't work any more, so you might as well play. But there's something else, something much deeper than that. We are taken back to an older time, when we were bound more closely to nature; to a time when people must have wondered if winter would ever end, and if they could possibly survive it even if it did. The children who are the heroes and heroines of all those wonderful books are not just fighting a dark lord or a witch queen - they are fighting the beautiful cruelty of a fierce winter.

And finally, just because I like it, one more picture.

Merry Christmas, one and all!

Fact and Fiction Cross Over by Lynda Waterhouse and Cassie Marramgrass

Several years ago whilst walking in the sand dunes a strand of marramgrass led me to a character called Cassandra Marramgrass. Stories about the secret world of the Sand Dancers unfolded. Cassie made me research the mysterious and beautiful world of sand dunes. Tonight she is demanding that I write a letter on their behalf. Fact and fiction are crossing over.
So here goes…………
Dear Mr Donald Trump,
My name is Cassandra Marramgrass and I am a sand sprite. We are mysterious creatures who live inside sand dunes and follow the rules set down in the Sands of Time. The first rule states that we must ‘Honour and care for the dunes as a mother would for her child.’ I know that you admire the Balmedie sand dunes in Aberdeenshire, Scotland because you said, ‘When I saw this piece of land I was overwhelmed by the imposing dunes.’ They are special. So I am asking you, on behalf of the sand sprites, not to build your golf resort, you holiday apartments, luxury hotel and two golf courses on 1400 acres of these beautiful dunes. They are rare and as well as being home to the sand sprites they are teeming with life. The skylarks, lapwings, redshanks and pink footed geese to name but a few of the birds come to rest and nest here. Indeed the area had been designated of special scientific interest but this decree has been overturned by Alex Salmond. This is a worrying precedent and means that other sand dunes and nature reserves may now also be under threat.
We have a saying,
‘Time passes, sands shift and
Secrets are revealed’
In time your scientists may discover what the sand sprites already know about just how important sand dunes are to the ecology of the planet. We will continue dancing to maintain the health and harmony of the dunes for as long as we can but we do need help.
Cassandra Marramgrass

Has anyone else been compelled to action by one of their characters?

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Never Start a Book with the Weather... by Savita Kalhan

“Never start a book with the weather – readers will skip ahead to find people.”
This is one of Elmore Leonard’s basic writing rules.

I am about to embark on a new book because it’s autumn, but I will not be opening with the weather. I am writing this blog while it is still technically autumn, even if whole swathes of the country have already been clenched in the icy grip of a bitter northerly wind that brought with it snow and the usual accompanying chaos. The snow was forecasted all week, but it still took the councils by surprise and only some of the gritters braved the roads. There was high drama on the roads, avalanches descended on pavements, frozen train tracks, no school and lots of hot chocolate. But that’s already happened and set for a repeat performance this weekend when the Arctic winds blow our way.

But, even technically, autumn is fast receding, and I’m getting a little bit anxious because this is when I usually embark on a new story. I have done this every year for the past few years and it’s a tried and trusted system that has always worked for me. So why have I found myself messing about with the system?

Well firstly, I’ve belatedly discovered, at great pain and with much lost time, that being a writer doesn’t mean you’re allowed to sit around writing all day, heaven forbid. You have to be pro-active in creating your ‘brand’, raising your profile so that your work gets as far ‘out there’ as it possibly can because if you don’t do it then no one else will, and you have to maintain a visible and active profile in cyber-space, in schools, in bookshops, anywhere that will have you. That stuff takes time! I am only just getting to grips with it, and guess what? It’s definitely worth it as long as it doesn’t take over your life!

Secondly, I was side-tracked by the not unimportant task of finishing a psychological thriller. Enough said about that while it is being perused by the powers that be.

Whilst I have yet to start a book with the weather in Elmore Leonard’s definition, I do find it appealing and have wondered whether there are any best-sellers that do begin with the weather. I’m sure there are lots. Of course, I think he’s talking about his type of writing where an opening page on the weather would just get in the way of a rip-roaring story and brilliant characters.

Distractions, side-tracking, and Elmore Leonard aside, it’s still autumn (officially winter starts on 21st December) and I have obeyed that nagging voice and made a start on my next book and now I’m all set for the onslaught of winter, the decadence of Christmas and the advent of 2011...

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

PICK OF 2010 by Adèle Geras

Everyone’s doing it: choosing books they’ve enjoyed, or which they’d like to see under the Christmas tree, or which they reckon in some way deserve to be bought in the run-up to all the festivities. If you can match the reader to a book she’ll truly enjoy, then you’re doing well. Below are my favourite adult novels for this year, and I'm not counting the ones I’ve reviewed on ABBA during the last twelve months.

THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas (Tuskar Rock)

This book divided readers more than any other novel published this year. It was denounced as crude, misogynistic, and was also a favoured contender for the Bad Sex Prize which, incidentally, it didn’t win. The story is simple: a man at a barbecue in a suburb of Melbourne slaps a child who isn’t his own. The repercussions of this act propel the book forward, and we see what transpires through the eyes of several narrators. I thought it was terrific: energetic, lively, never for one moment boring and in parts most moving, especially in its depiction of the older generation of Greek immigrants who came to Australia after the Second World War and who have ceased to understand their own children. I reviewed a cracking Aussie thriller earlier in the year called TRUTH by Peter Temple and this, although not quite as good as the Temple, fills in the portrait of Melbourne with a bit more detail. I loved it.

PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf ( Picador)

Has anyone heard of Kent Haruf? I hadn’t until Scott Pack, on his blog, mentioned this novel and what a fine writer Haruf is. I found PLAINSONG and its sequel, EVENTIDE at the library and I’ve just finished reading the latter. My advice is: run, don’t walk to the nearest library to you and see if you can find them there. They are quite marvellous. A combination of Raymond Carver (very plain and unadorned prose) Cormac McCarthy (hard men, farmers, the land, a very small town in Colorado, an amazing landscape etc) and Elizabeth Strout(sensitive portrayal of feelings, emotions, especially of children and women and a build up of the story of a whole community in short chapters). I feel Haruf is my discovery of the year and I will now read everything he’s written. I can’t recommend him strongly enough.

A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore (Faber)

This novel was on the shortlist for the Orange Prize this year and it’s unputdownable. There are a couple of ‘as if’s’ in it but it’s very good about middle class mores and excellent about subjects like adoption and attitudes to children in general. It's very easy to read and told from the point of view of a young woman from the country who’s a University student. She takes the job of a mother’s help in a family which is much odder than she first thinks.

ABIDE WITH ME by Elizabeth Strout (Pocket Books)

I’m evangelical about this writer. I become like the Ancient Mariner and pin people against walls crying: You must read Elizabeth Strout! All three of her books are excellent but I’ve not written about this one before. It’s about a minister who’s widowed and left to care for a young daughter of five. The child has not spoken since her mother’s death. The rest of the novel follows from this. It’s superb: moving, well-written, and engaging.

THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE by Maggie O’Farrell (Headline)

This novel is on the shortlist for the Costa Novel Prize this year. It has a double time frame: the present, and the Fifties and early Sixties. It’s about motherhood: its problems, its agonies, its great joys and as always with this writer, she has produced a story written with both sympathy and elegance. She’s also very good at plotting so you always have a strong interest in reading on to see how the whole thing fits together. Terrific.

SAPLINGS by Noel Streatfeild (Persephone Books)

Anyone who loved ‘BALLET SHOES’ and Streatfeild’s other children’s books will be happy to read this adult novel. It shows her brilliance at depicting children and adults and the interaction between them. She’s very good at exploring the small miseries of childhood and how important they are; she’s very wise about the emotional havoc that can be wreaked in families and she describes brilliantly things like boarding-school and evacuation during the Second World War and in general gives a full and rounded picture of family life in the Forties. She makes us care about every single one of her characters. This novel is a real find, and I do urge you to seek it out. For anyone who, like me, loves Dorothy Whipple’s books, it would make the perfect present.

LOVE AND SUMMER by William Trevor (Penguin)

The master of the short story has written a novella which is both a love story and a portrait of an entire community. A young man returns to the home of his youth to sell it after his parents’ death and sets in train a series of events which ends in tragedy. Misunderstandings, and wrongly interpreted signals play a part in a the story which is full of the warmth and ease of summer despite the shadows and the pain.

STARTED EARLY TOOK MY DOG by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)

Lovers of the previous Jackson Brodie novels will enjoy this one as well. She’s fantastically good at plots which seem unknottable but which always do get unknotted. Jackson is a wonderful character but in this story he plays second fiddle to the heroine: a policewoman with a heart of gold who rescues a child she sees being assaulted in a shopping precinct. What follows involves corruption in high places, awful things happening to children and a Yorkshire setting which is brilliantly evoked. This was a ‘hold in one hand while frying onions’ book for me.

ANNIE DUNNE by Sebastian Barry (Faber)

Another book which takes the reader to a vanished Ireland (see LOVE AND SUMMER above) this is the story of two small children who are sent for the summer to live in the country with Annie Dunne and her sister. That’s it. Barry is outstanding at writing from the point of view of old women and here he creates a truly memorable main character. This novel is one of those which feels as though it hasn’t been ‘written’ at all but somehow arises organically, like a growing tree. The very opposite is true of course and the book is skilfully and poetically crafted, but it reads like life; as though Annie Dunne were a real person. It’s not plot driven in the way the Atkinson is, for example, but enough happens of horrendous and momentous note to keep you turning the pages. It’s a beautiful, life-enhancing book.

THE THREE WEISSMANS OF WESTPORT by Cathleen Schine (Corsair)

The blurb on this book says it’s a version of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. That’s as may be, but what it certainly is, is a very witty and entertaining story of what happens when Mrs. Weissman and her two adult daughters go and live in a small cottage by the sea. Mr Weissman has asked for a divorce and made his wife leave their apartment while he takes up with Felicity, a much younger woman. The daughters go with their mother, to help her and because they have love entanglements and work problems of their own. It’s a real treat of a book. It’s not Jane Austen but it does have some of her sharpness, perception and humour. She’d have enjoyed reading it, I reckon, and taken it as a compliment that Schine has used one of her novels as a jumping-off point.

I hope you enjoy some of these and please do put your own books of the year into the comments box!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Dot Dot Dot Dash - Joan Lennon

I love the questions kids ask when you go into schools and libraries to talk about being a writer. If the kids are small it can be a bit surreal. Questions like "I have an Auntie" or "We have a blue car" can be tricky to answer. But get a little higher up in the school and there are some interesting and stimulating queries. I don't even mind "Where do you get your ideas?" And one of these days I'll come up with a really ground-breakingly stunning answer.

But the other day I got a brand new one.

"What's your favourite punctuation?"

I have never been asked that before. I knew my answer right away, however. It's the dash. I bet the teacher wanted to kill me slowly for that, but it's true. Everyone who has to work with me knows I am over-fond of that little horizontal line. I love its breathiness, its pace, its panache and elan and eclat and its je ne sais quoi.

I also love ... By which I don't mean "If you wait a bit, I'll tell you what I love." I mean I also love ellipses. They feel like the white space on a page of poetry. Infinite things can happen during an ellipsis. Where a dash is a race, an ellipsis is a leap ...

And so I began to wonder about Morse code. There are many things I did not know about Morse code. I did not know, for example, that a dash is equal to 3 dots. I did not know that "dash ellipsis" is B, or that "ellipsis dash" is V. But I do know that a language that makes use of my two favourite members of the punctuation family has an enormous attraction. Not to mention how useful it has so often proved itself to be for those trapped in prisons with nothing but a pipe and a tin cup. The next spare moment that comes my way really should be committed to learning this excellent code.

dash dot dash dot / dot dot dot dot / dot / dot / dot dash dot / dot dot dot

P.S. Are all forms of punctuation equal in your eyes, or do you have a favourite? It would be interesting to know!

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Monday, 13 December 2010

How to turn an author into an engineer - early December 'scenes' - Dianne Hofmeyr

A freezing day in Oxford saw a group of authors become engineers at the stroke of a hat! You’ll recognize a few faces as we tried to interpret the spaces that will become the new Story Museum. The outing was devised by Jacky Atkinson and Kim Pickin, Director of the Story Museum, as part of the National Kids Lit Quiz day held in Oxford.

Herded across a snow-stewn courtyard by the enthusiastic Tish Francis, former director of the Oxford Playhouse, through a maze of winding passageways, rooms, halls and vast galleries of the old Oxford Telephone Exchange and finally up to the attics complete with resident spiders, peeling paint taking on the shape of unknown continents and fireplaces that must have once warmed poor starving artists… our imaginations were running wild. Towers could be added! Secret passageways! Peepholes! Escape shutes! A hoist in the courtyard was already in place to act as a gallows!The spaces are ripe to create magic in. The Story Museum won’t be so much a static ‘museum’ as a living, active place to share story and creativity. All the latent engineers can’t wait to be invited back here to be part of the action in creating a story-rich society!

A few freezing evenings later (London didn’t quite reach the same scale of freezing as the rest of the country) the Illustration Cupboard Gallery in Bury Street, St James was ablaze with colour, light and sparkle (in the proper liquid form!) with their 15th Annual Winter Exhibition and Jane Ray was there signing her latest book out with Frances Lincoln, Ahmed and the Feather Girl … her illustrations a brilliant combination of paint and paper with individual feathers finely cut from patterned paper to create textured collage. A quick visit to the Illustration Cupboard on a dark, cold, wintery afternoon might be just the inspiration needed to get ‘someone’ to buy you a Christmas present.

Not the research rooms inside the V&A, but an off-site, stand alone wine bar/ coffee bar/ reading room/ bookshop all wrapped up into an intimate space on Exhibition Road near the South Ken Tube station that has only been open for a few weeks. It’s filled with an eclectic collection of books, not just V&A editions, and obviously has a book buyer with quirky ideas. Rediscover the delights of browsing and encounter the wonderful and obscure. This is the place to browse through books on lethally toxic plants, a few vintage bindings and graphic novels too with a good glass of Merlot or chilled Pouilly-Fuisse in hand. A bit different to having Starbucks inside your average bookshop. So while the rest of the mob are ice-skating in the cold outside the Natural History Museum, sneak away and take refuge in the new V&A Reading room.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Three thoughts - Leila Rasheed


The world is changing and so is my brain. When I was a teenager, I used to saturate myself in Dickens or Austen and go about narrating my life to myself in the voice of their novels. This evening I was struggling to light our apathetic fire and found myself narrating my life to myself in a Facebook status. Leila Rasheed Is: playing with fire. Language shrinkage. I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel, and I’m convinced that I’ve written it a hundred times more badly than I would have five or ten years ago. My brain has curled up like a hedgehog and no matter how much I poke it with sticks, it doesn’t want to move.
I think I can solve it. The first step is making space for a book, turning off the computer. Reading does for the brain what water does to those magic towels I coveted when I was a child; it causes it to expand and become far more interesting. There are microbes that lie around in a state of dehydration for years just waiting for the rain to bring them back to life. My brain can live again!
We need computers. We probably even need Facebook. But we need real books, too. This is why it is so sad that libraries are under threat. The internet scrunches language up small, it dehydrates it. Books, novels, well-written books of all kind, allow language to flourish. And language is thought.


Spell checkers have their own happy logic. Sometimes when I am typing away, I’ll mis-hit a key, and the program will adjust what I typed to what it thinks I meant to type. So what I intended as more becomes moiré. Now I have never, to my knowledge, intentionally typed the word moiré until this blog post. How often does the average Microsoft user use the word moiré? How often does anyone use the word moiré? I imagine the computer, blind and deaf as it is, imagines itself used by an elegant lady with strings of pearls and a chignon (another word I have never to the best of my knowledge typed before). Such a lady would use the word moiré. Such a lady would have a less apathetic fire than mine, and a small dog to sit in front of it.


Over in Italy, we buy firewood that fruit farmers have trimmed from their trees and we stack it outside to dry. It is proper wood, with knots and gnarls and bark and splinters. We also collect driftwood; big nubbly olive roots stripped of bark, bits of door, that kind of thing. When dried out this burns in witchy colours because of the salt. It usually leaves behind stubborn bits that won’t burn, and old nails and so forth.
Here in England we buy sacks of smokeless fuel shaped into perfect pebbles as light as pumice, and ‘Blaze’ logs, which are formed of sawdust into a regular cuboid with a perfect hole down the middle, packed neatly into plastic. They are the same brown all over. They burn entirely and leave vast amounts of fine, clean white ash.
On the one hand, a functional, Facebook sort of a language, perfectly cuboid, uniformly brown. On the other, a gnarly, splintery, waterlogged sort of a language that needs stacking in the head and leaving to dry for a while before it can burn, and burn, and burn.

Friday, 10 December 2010

A Cautionary Tale Part 2 Meg Harper

You can tell how much of a flap I was in last week - I posted my blog on the wrong day! Apologies to Nicola Morgan! So if you missed Part 1 of this and are interested, please scroll back to 2nd Dec. My cunning plan to put a warning note in my diary misfired; I interpreted it as, 'Do blog today!' not, 'It's next week!'

Anyway, I was stressing away about my Summer Creative Writing Project's self-publishing venture running aground and was issuing dire warnings to all and sundry. The happy ending is that the ship seems to be afloat again though we won't have a book out for Christmas - but we will have a very nice looking and (I hope!) very well edited anthology in the New Year!

What do I learn? Make sure that what is needed by each deadline is absolutely clear. What has become standard to me, will not be to students. Now how did I not realise that? Doh!

I think I had my share of this space last week so that's all for now - except to say how much I'm enjoying the messages from the editor I'm working with at the moment. She manages to combine enthusiasm with rigour in a way which is highly motivating. I think I respond like a rather dim dog. Pat me and I'll do anything you want - and quickly! : )

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Comic Effect - Andrew Strong

I didn’t read a proper novel until I was fourteen or fifteen, and then it was because I had to, it was homework. It was ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and I thought it was quite funny, for a book.

My childhood was a more middle class version of ‘Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.’ It was brilliant. I mucked about until the age of about fourteen, when girls and bands and physics came along. From then on life wasn’t so straightforward, but books still played very little part in it.

At nine or ten I was up early on most mornings to take my dog for a walk, usually along the canal path, where the tramps used to sleep. I’d have a big breakfast, enough for a small army, then head off to school where I was bright enough to get through the day without too much effort. Bookish people seemed a little odd. Why would I want to spend hours curled up on my own? It seemed just as geeky to me then as X-box addicts must appear to an older generation today. No better, no worse.

There were comics, of course. I started with my brother’s Eagle, took up the Beano, then the much overlooked TV21, followed by Batman, Flash and the X Men. There was Monster Magazine, Shoot, and a little later music magazines: Melody Maker, NME and Sounds. I was never allowed to read comics or magazines at the meal table, only in the ‘lounge’ in front of the television. I couldn’t read them in the bedroom because I shared that with my older brother and he didn’t need any excuse to beat me up.

My parents would buy me ‘improving’ books for Christmas and birthdays. There was one series called ‘How and Why’. The ‘How and Why Book of Rockets’, for example, or the ‘How and Why Book of Dinosaurs.’ I adored those books, I loved the illustrations and used to make copies of them, colouring them in with felt pens. Sometimes I just drew on the books. What liberation, just to draw straight on to a book! But I can’t say I ever understood the how or the why of anything. I definitely didn’t understand the ‘how’ of rockets, and certainly not the ‘why’ of dinosaurs.

But ‘How and Why’ books were important for one very significant reason. They were bigger than comics, and therefore could camouflage the mindless stuff by hiding it inside a brainy cover. When I started reading ‘The How and Why Book of Volcanoes’ at the breakfast table, my mum gave my dad a nod of the head, and thinking I was on the sunlit path to self-improvement, left me alone. Little did they realise I was gripped by a Fantastic Four adventure I’d borrowed from my friend Martin.

Books were good for you, comics were bad. Books were akin to fresh air and exercise, comics were like crisps and chewing gum. To me, they were just the opposite. Books were dusty and meant for dark corners. My parents, wonderful though they were, thought I would become an intellectual if I read proper books. They wanted a brainy son, and comics would not feed my brains.

But comics are beautiful, and even now the smell and texture of a comic sends a delicious shiver of excitement through me. I love all books now, of course, and have long since stopped drawing all over them. Through comics I found my way to books, and once I’d found them, I was never going back.

I mentioned this far off episode of the household disdain for comics to my octogenarian father the last time we spoke and he made a startling admission. “I still haven’t ever read a proper book,” he laughed. And then he winked. “Except yours, of course.”

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Risks and Regrets - Elen Caldecott

About five years ago, I had lunch in a Italian chain restaurant in an out-of-town retail park. It was an unlovely place for a conversation that would change the course of my life. The pasta was dry and the service was slapstick. But at least I wasn't paying; the meal was on the company.
At the time, I worked for a national chain. The purpose of the lunch was to Discuss My Future. Like all big companies, the chain had a staff development programme, where training would be given to anyone seeking promotion. I had completed all the training I could do at my branch. If I wanted to go further, I would have to move around the country doing internships at other branches.
So, my manager and I went for lunch.

I had two very different choices in front of me. I could stay in the company, travel, meet new people and eventually have my own branch, maybe my own region to look after.
Or, I could take myself seriously as an artist. I could stop messing around with stories and I could apply myself to a dream.
As I ate my chewy penne, I imagined those two futures.
In the first, I had a clear line of progression, interesting work, a pension plan, regular pay rises.
With the second, I had no guarantee of any money, no pension, no security, but it had a siren song.
I couldn't choose both; I knew that to succeed, I needed to be committed. If I attempted both, I'd do neither well.
I swallowed my food, and it wasn't just the fact that it was barely edible that made it stick in my throat. I was about to take a huge risk that might backfire horribly. I declined my manager's offer. Two weeks later, I applied to do an MA in Creative Writing for Young People.

The reason that I'm writing about this is because artists are having to think long and hard about their choices at the moment and I am no exception. What kind of life would I have now if I had agreed to his offer? I might own a house, I might have a fashionable hairdo, I might take foreign holidays, I wouldn't be so worried about what will happen to me when I'm old.
However, I suspect that I would also be living with regret; no matter how well I succeeded in business, I wouldn't have been doing the thing I loved.

Artists, writers and creative thinkers have to take risks. Simply by persuing those professions we are taking a risk. The arts landscape at the moment makes this situation even more precarious. But, for me, that makes my decision all the more valid. I love my job, I love books and I love reading. They are worth making sacrifices for. These are the things that stir passions.

At the time (and at points since), not everyone has understood my decision. Some have thought it foolhardy or short-sighted. Maybe it was. But it isn't a decision I can regret.
Elen's Facebook Page

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Fiction but not as we know it... Celia Rees

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by Armadillo, the Online Independent Children's Book Magazine, to review a book for teenagers. I don't know if the review is up yet, but home is - for reviews, author interviews, and much, much more. If you don't already go there, you really should check it out. Anyway, the book arrived and I began to read. SF/fantasy is not my favourite genre - so easy to do badly - and this seemed to be a kind of Twilight with Aliens. It was sloppily written with every fantasy cliche jammed in there from Tolkien to, oh, anyone you like to think of, by way of Marvel Comics, Star Trek and Avatar. Suffice it to say, I didn't like it much. More than that, I thought there was something wrong with it. It was as if I wasn't reading a novel, as much as a novelisation - a print version of a film, or a comic, or a video game. It was written under a pseudonym, purportedly that of an alien. It certainly read that way. It seemed destined for great things, however, soon to be a major motion picture, a sticker said on the cover, the focus of an aggressive publicity campaign. Recently, I saw it has been picked out as a 'teen book of the year' in a major newspaper. So who am I to say? All I know was that it was not a book for me, and it didn't read quite right.
Some weeks later, I saw an article in the Guardian about bad boy American author, James Frey (the one who upset Oprah when she found out that his autobiography was, at least in part, fictional). He is in trouble again, it seems, for setting up a Fiction Factory, employing unknowns to churn out books to order - one of which is the one I read for Armadillo. I felt vindicated. I knew there was something wrong about it! He defends himself by citing artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons who come up with a concept and leave it to others to do the hard work. There seems to be a difference. Like these artists or not, the concept is often startling and original. The same cannot be said of the Fiction Factory, if the product that I sampled is anything to go by. And yet, and yet... major motion picture, ad campaign, reviews, Waterstone's placement, how many real writers of genuinely original fantasy fiction get that kind of treatment? Even more disconcerting is the idea of relays of energetic wannerbes churning out books one after another. How many writers of series fiction could keep up with that? And if writing style, storytelling ability and originality no longer matter, how long before we have e writers as well as e readers, cyberbots producing books at the click of a mouse?
It will be fiction, Jim, but not as we know it...

Monday, 6 December 2010

You’d Pay A Plumber by Lynne Garner

I’ve been very lucky with my writing career and had a number of books published. I now find myself in the position where people ask me questions about getting published, how to contact editors etc. etc. So much so that I’ve decided to run courses and one-to-one coaching sessions aimed at aspiring authors trying to break into the industry. A venue has been booked and I am beginning to advertise these courses.
It was for this reason I attended a local networking group. I gave my one-minute ‘elevator’ speech and sat down hoping I’d made the right impression and given the relevant details. When the meeting concluded a woman I know from a previous life came over to talk to me. She told me she had a close friend who had written a book but had not managed to get it published. “What should he do?” Without thinking I started with the “well he should research other books already published in the same genre, who had published them, why is his book different?” Then the little voice inside my head shouted, “STOP! Why are you here? Get this guy to come to your classes, don’t give away all your knowledge for free.”
At first I felt a little guilty that I wanted to gain financially and was asking aspiring authors to pay for my time and knowledge. However I attended my local monthly craft club just last week and met a new member. She is in the last year of her degree studies and is thinking about writing for a living. As we sat talking I found myself offering hints and tips on how to get started. At the end of the night we swapped cards and as she wrapped her scarf around her neck she said, “I should have paid for all the help you gave tonight, thank you.” So now I don’t feel so guilty.
It has taken me ten years to get to where I am today in my writing career. I’ve made many a mistake, been educated by some wonderful editors and paid to attend classes. So why do people assume I should give this knowledge away for free? If the car were playing up they’d take it to a garage and pay for the engineers expertise. If the boiler were making odd noises they’d call a plumber and pay them.
So although I’m more than happy to give away a few hints and tips, listen to how they’re making the same mistakes I did, sympathise with a lack of success etc. etc. I no longer feel guilty about selling the idea of attending one of my courses or one-to-one coaching sessions. You never know in ten years time they’ll be helping the next generation of authors in the same way and struggling with the idea of charging for their expertise and knowledge.
So now for the guiltless plug.
Interested? Then email me at

Friday, 3 December 2010

Libraries: nostalgia may soon not be what it used to be: Gillian Philip

Better and more dedicated bloggers have blogged about the crisis facing our libraries, including Lucy Coats, Keren David and Candy Gourlay. Please read their posts from yesterday, because I can't put it better than they can.

I can, though, tell you what my local library meant to me as a child, because I'll never forget standing at my bedroom window one night, with my parents and my brother, watching the glow light up the sky as it burned to the ground. I remember being heartbroken, because it was the place I loved to be: the place that brought me Paddington Bear and the Famous Five and so many other worlds of wild excitement.

All I could think of that night, and the next day as we went to look at the ruins, was all those worlds, all those words, all those books going up in smoke. At eight I could think of no greater tragedy. I fantasised that the local press would interview me, as the library's most fanatical client. I even practised what I'd say.

I'd discovered Snoggle in that library, an odd little egg-shaped alien created by JB Priestley. He was as alone and far from home as ET, and even more heart-tugging. Obsessed, I'd taken the book with me into the garden, then left it lying there to be rained on. I had only recently returned it, terrified and guilty, to the librarian (who was very kind and forgiving, and who didn't have me arrested as I assumed she would). That night I remember wishing I'd kept it. More than thirty years later I had to track down a copy for my own kids, but I'm still afraid to read it, afraid to shatter the memory of one of the best-loved books of my childhood.

They rebuilt Wishaw Library: that's it in the photo above. It will have changed with the times, adapted, modernised. It must offer so much more now than it used to. I'd love to visit some time (hint hint). My nostalgic memories of the old library won't be any stronger than the memories the new one is creating right now for its thousands of visitors.

But looking for images of the beautiful old library, or even of the fire that destroyed it, I can't find any. Not one. It's as if that library never existed. Maybe I dreamed it.

Horrible, horrible thought. Let's not let it happen to all the others.

Home Sweet Home - Karen Ball

Your perfect home?

What type of publisher would give you the perfect home? 'Any publisher that will have me!' some authors might be tempted to cry. Do you enjoy the small but perfectly formed, or are you more inclined to play with the big boys? Now, more than ever, this question is worth thinking about. What are the publisher pros and cons?

The lean, mean running machine
I've been watching these types with interest. Specifically, I'm thinking about Strident Publishing and Nosy Crow. Small enough to be able to move quickly, adapt, and be flexible. In our fast-changing world, do you want a publisher that is light on its feet, open-minded and able to move with the times? You may not receive the biggest deal in monetary terms, but you'd be on an exciting ride.

The weighty
I'm talking about the big corporate publishers that can change an author's world with huge advances, online marketing, author tours, international attention... The world is your oyster - and what a big world it is. Authors either sink or swim in this environment. It can be breathtaking, exhilarating, terrifying. It's the dream most of us are encouraged to chase, but is it the right dream for you? I'd encourage writers to look at themselves and ask some honest questions. Would I thrive under this scrutiny? Can I confidently satisfy my part of the deal? Is big best? It can be - oh, it can be! But remember, it's not the only option.

The man in the middle
An imprint can give you the best of both worlds. The weight and financial security of a big publisher but with the cosy, personal touch of a small, finely selected list of books. What an honour to be hand-picked! What an added bonus that the eccentric publisher has a finely oiled publicity machine behind him!

The independent publishing company
There are still a few commercially successful publishing companies that haven't been gobbled up to become a slice in a large corporate pie. These homes usually have a USP - investment in quality production, a picture book list that thrives, an ethos of publishing such as cultural diversity. There will be eccentricities to these lists and their ways of working, but something very special too - the independence to make brave publishing choices.

The ???
With the advent of ebooks and apps, are there brand new publishing companies out there waiting to burst into existence? Possibly ones that don't have an office, a printing press, or a single book to fill a shelf? Digital content only. Interesting times. Would you play?

Have I missed any out? Is there a publishing home that has earned your loyalty? Do you know what suits you best? If you're on the cusp of a deal, it's worth pausing and thinking, Is this the right home for me?

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Thursday, 2 December 2010

Books Do Grow On Trees - Nicola Morgan

The lovely people at Blackwell's Bookshop in Edinburgh invited me to the launch of a fabulous event but I couldn't go because I was in London, hobnobbing with Brian May, Roger Daltrey, Roger Taylor and a load of other stars. (Ouch, the name-dropping! Actually, there were a lot more I could have dropped but I held myself back. Besides, when I told my daughter the other names, her response was, "What sort of a tacky event was this, mother? Please don't tell anyone you were there.") Anyway, although the launch has happened, the event is still going on, and it's SUCH a wonderful cause and idea that I wanted to be able to say something about it here.

So, here's a message from Julie Gamble at Blackwell's:
"The Children's Book Tree at Blackwell's Bookshop in Edinburgh is a scheme that lets customers donate a book to a vulnerable child in the city who is living in care or in difficult circumstances. We are working together with Edinburgh Women's Aid, Edinburgh Young Carers, Barnardo's, many support units run by The City of Edinburgh Council and Edinburgh Foster Care to find out what each child would like. We then attach their requests to tags and hang them from our 'Book Tree'. From 25th Nov until 19th Dec customers can drop into the Children's Dept. at Blackwell's on South Bridge, choose a tag from the tree and buy a book to go with it. We'll then wrap and send the books in time for Christmas.

If you'd like to gift a book but can't make it in person you can get in touch with us on 0131 6228225. If you would like to buy a book on behalf of someone else we can also provide a lovely gift certificate!

Thanks for making Christmas a little brighter for these kids."

Hooray!! Fab idea. I'm going there very very soon. There's the tree, all ready and waiting for wishes to be fulfilled.

Does anyone know of any other schemes like this in your part of the country? Would you like to name them here? Or, if you don't, why not contribute to the Edinburgh one by dialling that number?

If we believe that books are important and enriching and wonderful, we must believe in their utmost importance for vulnerable children who have had such a bad start in life.

Oh, and as an extra treat, here's a pic of Julie, thinly disguised as an elf, standing with Sarah Brown, whom you might recognise. 

A Cautionary Tale Meg Harper

This won’t be an erudite blog – it’ll probably be more of a venting of current angst – but hopefully it might be helpful to anyone else involved in what I call para-writing ie. all the work that writers do that has something to do with writing but isn’t actually the thing itself! I love it – I’m not someone who wants to write all day, everyday – but it certainly has its moments.
So – the history. For the last three summers I have run a 3 day creative writing course for adults, with the aim of publishing an anthology of their work. The first year we published ‘Banbury Stories’, the second year we published ‘New Stories for Old’ and this year we are still hoping to publish ‘Oxfordshire Originals’.
This year, one of the students approached me to explain that he was a small publisher himself. He publishes directories. He knows the process and thought he could do a better job than could be done through Lulu. He was interested in the idea of us forming a sort of co-operative. We would all agree to buy 7 books but would not contribute anything else to the cost of publication and he would aim to promote the book commercially. He thought he could cover his expenses and even make a small profit for us all. For him it was an experiment in publishing something more creative, he explained – and the group would get their work published to a higher specification at little extra cost. He hoped, if it was a success, to publish further anthologies of Oxfordshire Originals on the same basis – not quite vanity publishing but heading in that direction.
I am not a risk-taker on the whole, but on this occasion I thought it was worth a shot. The student seemed to know what he was doing and be very genuine and I still believe that he is. I agreed to be the editor of his version of the anthology as an experiment. Unfortunately, I don’t think he had enough awareness of how time-consuming editing is and we have, I think, had a misunderstanding about what was meant by ‘the stories are to be ready by the end of November’. To cut a long story short, despite my best efforts and protestations, he has gone to press with a book which has far too many minor errors in it for my liking.
I explained my discomfort and asked him to get in touch with his printer urgently to delay the print-run but he has refused and instead is threatening to abort the whole project . I therefore emailed the contributors to ask if they would prefer to go ahead or for me to do my usual Lulu version after Christmas and I’m waiting for the verdict. So far, its 2 all! Meanwhile, the student has emailed the contributors, telling them that I’ve lost faith in the project (untrue) and offering them a different deal which really is vanity publishing.
Deep sigh. What do I learn from this apart from not to take risks?
1. Not all publishing is done to the same high standards of editing! Clearly certain directories are not!
2. Just because someone is a publisher, he/she won’t necessarily know how long the process of editing fiction takes.
3. We are vulnerable. I feel my goodwill has been taken advantage of here. I have put more time into this than if I had been creating my own publication, all unpaid, but am not being treated as an equal partner in the process. I may be being paranoid but I think there are people out there who see publishing as a way to make a quick buck because other people are so keen to be published. That makes writers who also work as creative writing teachers vulnerable and also their students.
4. Some people don’t care about perfection – they just want something published. Others care very deeply that a book is as perfect as it possibly can be and will hold out for that. I have both sorts in my creative writing group – and it will make this situation difficult to resolve.
Perhaps I have felt even more perfectionist than normal because my latest book, ‘Stop, thief!, a book of only 500 words has a glaring misprint on (would you believe it?) page 13. Apparently, the wrong file was sent to the printer! Ironic, hey?
Well, wish me luck! There are some good stories in the book so if it does get published by my student, you can order it from Amazon and enjoy – and count the errors too!

Meg Harper
Latest book: ‘Stop, thief!’, published by A&C Black

Wednesday, 1 December 2010


I am lucky enough to be able to slip out of my “author talk” mode during school visits and tell traditional stories. One of my personal and most enjoyable favourites is bold, brave Molly Whuppie.

If I was truly academic about my telling, I’d know when I met her or which parts of the telling came from where and when, times a hundred. Was she among Andrew Lang’s tales read long ago? Certainly I knew the story well before meeting Kathleen Brigg’s great collection. And how much of my version echoes Alan Garner’s wonderful re-telling? Or does the perspective I see in my head during the escape scene echo that of Raymond Briggs' illustration?

The truth is that I don’t want to go back and look, because I have my own Molly alive in my head, shaped by many tellings.

Molly is a kind of female Jack, who manages to keep her two mean-spirited sisters and herself both safe and sheltered in a bone-crunching ogre’s castle overnight.
However (and it's the however that counts) there’s a truly chilling scene where Molly nips out of the overnight bed she’s sharing with her two sisters. Swiftly, she switches the three necklaces of plaited golden straw the ogre had given Molly and her sisters last night at dinner with the bright golden chains he had placed around his own three strange daughters necks.

When, moments later, the ogre comes in to the dark chamber,and feels for the damning chains of straw, it is his own three daughters he takes away, down to the cellar.

Now I do not tell this tale often or to young children, or to children I have only just met, or without other tales of different moods before or after. Molly needs the right moment, as well as an awareness of what is going on in that schools life at the time, and any horrific news stories that are high profile at the time. Sometimes with younger children, I make it clear that the ogre just locks his daughters in the nasty dark cellar. But it is a shivery moment, and always needs handling with care and concentration.

The horror is partly diminished by the later scenes, because not only does Molly get her sisters safely away and eventually married off, but she also returns three times to steal the giant’s treasures. Molly is not anyone’s simpering heroine, but practical and brave, and there is no mention of her being beautiful.

Molly Whuppie wouldn’t be classified as a tale of real life but I can’t tell the tale without acknowledging the deep human feelings within it. Molly is real but she isn’t “real life.” So Molly cheers me immensely when I worry about not being able to write pink kitten stories, or wacky stories about underwear, or gritty urban drama.
I need the cloak of the past to give my best writing its feelings and shape.

Where and when do you find or place your best-loved stories?

Penny’s latest book, A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E is out now. (Bloomsbury)

Note: The triple theft scenes in this tale are woven through with the ogre calling a something like “Woe betide you, Molly Whuppie, if ever you return again.” To which Molly replies “Twice more, thrice more I’ll come to Spain”, a refrain which suggests that at this tale was current when Elizabeth I was on the throne, facing a Spanish invasion.