Monday, 27 September 2021

Winter is Coming by Claire Fayers



I'll be the first to say it: summer is over.

The last, sad tomatoes are dropping from my plants. The sunflowers are withering. The sweet peas gave up the ghost weeks ago. Yesterday, we almost put the central heating on. 

Winter is coming. Winter, with its dark, cold mornings; its rain and its gloom. 

Winter, when you can read under a blanket without feeling guilty. When you can write in bed in the afternoon with the cats curled around you. When you can wear your dressing gown all day like Arthur Dent. 

Winter, when we live on casserole and pudding, and we’ve all put on weight in lockdown anyway so who cares about the calories? There might be crisp winter mornings with frost underfoot. Candles in the evening. Hot chocolate in front of the fire.

Winter is a wonderful season for creating. There will be recipes to try, pumpkins to carve, trees to festoon. November is Nanowrimo month if you fancy writing a novel in 30 days. And even if you don't, the long, dark evenings are a perfect time for some writing sprints. In summer we had to go out so as not to waste the weather. In winter, we can curl up and dream.

And then there’ll be Christmas when we can stock up on books like this one. 




Or this one. 




Or this one.




Winter means the Scattered Authors Folly Farm retreat. Last year's had to be cancelled and I am so much looking forward to January 2022.

Winter means little things. Like closing the curtains at night to make the house instantly cosy. A hot shower after a cold walk. Watching for the robin in the garden. Hoping for snow.

Winter is coming - hurrah!

I love to watch the fine mist of the night come on,
The windows and the stars illumined, one by one,
The rivers of dark smoke pour upward lazily,
And the moon rise and turn them silver. I shall see
The Springs, the Summers, and the Autumns slowly pass;
And when old Winter puts his blank face to the glass,
I shall close all my shutters, pull the curtains tight,
And build me stately palaces by candlelight.

Charles Baudelaire




Claire Fayers writes fantasy adventures and fairy tales, and can't wait to don her dressing gown. 









Sunday, 26 September 2021

The Panda, The Cat and The Dreadful Teddy by Paul Magrs, review by Shirley-Anne McMillan

I have loved Paul Magrs's writing for years now. He is one of those rare authors who is just great at covering a range of genres- YA, magical realism, crime fiction, sci-fi... So it shouldn't be a big surprise to anyone that he has turned his hand to what poet Gerry Potter calls inspirational positivia. Well, sort of. Not really.

The Panda, The Cat and the Dreadful Teddy is a hilarious take on those kinds of books. The adorable figures of Panda, Cat and Teddy stand for us in Pandemic Times, listening to the trite phrases that are meant to make us feel great about ourselves and honestly reflecting that actually they’re just making us feel worse. And quite pissed off, really.



As part of my job I curate a ‘Thought For The Day’ for a local school and so I spend a lot of time looking at ‘inspirational’ memes and websites searching for something meaningful among the ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ type phrases which make me want to scream. The Panda, The Cat and the Dreadful Teddy is the antidote to this kind of thing. It’s more ‘Live, laugh, love and swear your head off if it all gets too much.’


One of the things I really love about it is that it isn’t completely cynical. Teddy, the little bear who just wants everyone to be happy, is so relatable that even as we’re laughing at sweary Panda’s responses we’re also on Teddy’s side too- he’s really cute and we like him, and we suspect that perhaps Panda actually likes him too really. I mean, they’re always together, and Panda hasn’t killed him, yet...

Paul’s drawings are wonderful (it was so hard to pick a few out of the book to post here) and the juxtaposition of the lovely little characters with Panda’s perma-rage had me laughing out loud several times. He does give some good advice too. I feel like the combination of the three characters are the perfect contemporary therapist- telling it like it is, reflecting pandemic rage, and sometimes encouraging you to just wise up.

The Panda, The Cat and the Dreadful Teddy is out on the 30th September and I can't wait to get my hands on it. Check out Paul's Twitter account for more. 

Saturday, 25 September 2021

To social media or not to social media? by Holly Race

Anyone who has stepped foot in Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or TikTok will know that they can be perilous places. It's so easy to get sucked in, either arguing with someone whose mind you're never going to change, or comparing your own success (or lack of) with others who are on the same path. It's a drain: of time, of mental energy, of emotion.

But I can't pull myself away! I love being able to keep in contact with my readers and with other authors, to keep abreast of what's happening in the book world and to applaud my peers' successes.

I've been wishing for a while that I could find a better balance with my social media use: being smarter, spending more time engaging with others instead of firing off every random thought that comes to me when I've inevitably had too much coffee and too little sleep. Thus I found myself on Neema Shah's incisive and practical 'Marketing for Writers' online course. I won't share exactly what she taught me, but her guidance has led me to both realisations and a much more fun and fulfilling social media experience.

Here are a few insights I got into my own personal online experience:

  • Facebook is going to remain a platform I use to connect with other writers rather than readers. My audience - mostly teenagers and people in their 20s - don't really use Facebook anymore.
  • Twitter doesn't enjoy me talking directly about my books - in a month when I had a lot of events lined up, I actually lost followers! It's a much better site for getting and giving recommendations of all kinds.
  • Instagram, conversely, much prefers me to post pretty pictures of my own books to anyone else's! I love sharing photos of my latest book haul so I can't see myself changing my posting habits, but it was interesting to note the difference with Twitter nonetheless.
  • TikTok. Ah, TikTok. I'd avoided doing anything more than scrolling through this newest platform until recently, because it makes me feel very old and uncool. However, I dipped my toes in last week and had a surprisingly pleasant experience. I had more fun on social media than I've had in a long time. TikTok seems to love a bit of sass, and with an endless stream of prompts, it's not as creatively draining as I'd feared it might be. The Bookseller recently reported a 61% uptick in sales of YA books, largely thanks to TikTok. I don't know whether it's a coincidence or correlation, but my own book leapt up the Amazon rankings a day after I posted my first video...

I'll be interested to see what else comes out of my new, hopefully more streamlined, way of thinking about how to use social media. I never want to chase followers, but given my work is largely solitary, I'd love to be able to reach more like-minded readers and writers across the globe in a meaningful way!

---


Holly Race worked for many years as a script editor in film and television, before becoming a writer.

Her YA urban fantasies, Midnight's Twins and A Gathering Midnight, are published by Hot Key Books.

Thursday, 23 September 2021

In praise of books! By Sue Purkiss

 Books are the most fantastic things, aren't they? I don't particularly mean books as objects, though I could happily write  a good deal on that topic too - I mean what's in them.

I've just finished a book by Elif Shafak, a British-Turkish writer whom I came across last year when listening to a talk from the Hay Festival online. She was talking to Philippe Sands, whose books I had read, and who is another enormously impressive author, though of non-fiction rather than fiction.

I finally got to read one of her books a couple of weeks ago - I've written about it here. It's called The Island of Missing Trees, and I love it. It's about memory, belonging, identity, relationships, love, trees - all sorts of things. Then this morning I just finished Three Daughters of Eve.

This is a spikier, in some ways more challenging book, for me at any rate. It concerns a woman from Istanbul, Peri, and takes place over one - very dramatic - night, when Peri goes to a dinner party, is attacked on the way there, and then - well - something else happens. During the course of the long evening, she finds herself reflecting on events from sixteen years before (and earlier) when she was at Oxford University, which was for her a seminal and intensely disruptive experience with which she has never really come to terms. During her time there she came to know a charismatic philosophy lecturer named Azur, and hoped that he would help her to understand not only herself, but also the nature of God.

Many years ago, when I was a fresher doing English at Durham University, we had an introductory talk by the head of department, Professor Dorsch. At one point, (after informing us that the three greatest writers in the English language were Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and, I think, Milton) he moved on to discuss what subsidiary subjects we might be thinking of taking. It was a long time ago, and I'm paraphrasing, but what he said was along these lines: "Some of you might be thinking of taking philosophy. I would advise you to think very carefully about doing so. It is a very... difficult subject."

Well, going by this book, I think he was right. Elif Shafak certainly doesn't shy away from it, but I can't pretend to have understood much of the philosophical discussion in the book. And there's a lot more that I know I haven't yet grasped - what was the significance of the attack, in particular the bandaged hand? Why does Peri have visions of a baby in the mist? (Actually, I think I do have a clue about that one.) Why... and so on. It's a book I'd love to discuss in a book group - I need to tap into the wisdom of others!

But notwithstanding all that I didn't understand, I found the book brilliant, stimulating, absorbing. When I'd finished it I felt that I'd been in another place. I felt refreshed, challenged, invigorated. Isn't it marvellous that a book can do that for you?

And of course, different books can do different things. I have books I return to when I need comfort reading - the assurance that once I open the book, I will be absorbed. A great favourite of this kind in recent years has been Elly Griffith's series of books about a forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway, set in Norfolk.  (For more, see here.) The delight in these books is the cast of characters, their relationships, their affection for each other, the way they change and grow over time. Or there are Colin Cotterill's Dr Siri books set in Laos - similarly, the mystery element is almost incidental: it's the characters whose worlds you want to enter. And if things are really bad, I go in search of Heidi, and toasted cheese in the attic of the Alm Uncle.

There are so many different kinds of books, aren't there? Books about nature, which help to further our knowledge of the environment and also can bring a sense of peace and astonishment.

Biographies, which again take us into other lives.

Books on history and politics, which challenge and make us think.

And of course, there are children's books, which enchant and which bring hope and a sense of what is possible.

I know it's an obvious thing to say on a blog that celebrates writing - but thank heaven for books, especially in these interesting times!

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Julia And The Shark, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

 



This is a wonderful book to hold, heavy, and lush with shimmery silver framing its two-tone cover, a murmuration of birds flying from one endpaper over the page edges into the other endpaper. 

That production is entirely in keeping with the story. It is a heavy story, heavy with dread from the opening hint that Julia’s mother is going to die, heavy with the deep upset of a bipolar mother plunging from dangerously hyper enthusiasm and confidence to wanting to kill herself. This is a story that is honest about what it feels like to be the child living through that, but the story surprises us with the mother being saved by real life NHS help. And Mum’s mental instability isn’t by any means all that this story is about.

Like the surging murmuration of those birds, we swirl with beauty, observing the wonders of the sea and the night sky from a remote Shetland lighthouse. Those wonders come within a very relatable story of friendships and a bully and misunderstandings and learning to see the whole of people in order to understand and care for them. And there is daring and adventure for eleven year old Julia as she takes her mother’s tatty boat out into a storm to search for the ancient whale her more had been searching for and believing in. She finds it! And does that whale save her life when she’s drowning, before a human rescue brings her safe home? Tense and exciting and compelling!

Like that silver glimmer on the cover, the writing and illustration add beauty and shimmer to this story, lived through words and pictures.

After the story comes the bonus of Julia’s notebook jottings of fascinating sea and sky related facts, and some information about mental illness and how to find help if you are struggling.

 

Exactly because this is such a powerful story and book, I hope that adults read it first, and know the child reader, before offering it to those who will cope well with, and love, it. It’s a story to talk through with that child reader after it’s been read. For some children this will a life-changing book, opening their eyes and hearts to more than they’d known before of their world and of the people and other creatures who live in it. 


Pippa Goodhart: www.pippagoodhart.co.uk  

 

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Parables or Propaganda? The role of the Children's writer.


I went to an online book launch this week, of a book by Philip Reeves, a children's writer whose work I really admire, and whose imagination astounds me.  I bought and read the book, 'Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep' and frequently had to stop and read bits out loud, as I just love the way he uses words. It's a great story. Philip says he wants to write Art which is accessible to children, and I think he does just that. The way he uses language is amazing, and I highly recommend it. 




Here is the recording of the books launch. It's really worth watching,  for the readings by Philip and also the introduction by Liz Cross and the interview with Nikki Gamble. There were also questions from people there, and someone asked him whether he would ever write for adults.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cV78OU0CF84


In the interview, at 48.51 Philip replied to a question about whether he would ever write for adults,  saying something which really interested me and made me think. He mentioned a trend in children's' books that he didn't like, called 'The Water Babies tendency', a tendency to be didactic and use stories for children to impart lessons for readers. He said that he didn't want to write parables, and that he wanted to write Art, and as long as he could do that he would continue to write for children.


I think that's fascinating, and his mention of 'The Water Babies' really made me want to explore this more.


I totally 'get' what Philip says about didacticism in Children's Literature. Back in 1993-95, I studied for an MA in the History and Development of Children's Literature, and am very interested in Victorian books for children, and have a small collection of them. Anyone who ever reads the incredibly popular  'The Fairchild Family',  (pub in three volumes 1818, 1842, 1847) by Mary Martha Sherwood  - will understand Hilaire Belloc's   'Matilda' and others of his 'Cautionary Tales', which I am sure directly reacted to books like 'The Fairchild Family'. The dire consequences of a lie told by a child in The Fairchild Family' are jaw-droppingly awful! The fascinating thing is that it was seen as delightfully realistic at the time! 


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_History_of_the_Fairchild_Family

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cautionary_Tales_for_Children


As a child, and as an adult, I have read my fair share of  stories for children which are just not very good, and which are being used to impose some sort of value system, religious or political. The most extreme examples of this which leaps to mind, which influenced my book 'Girl with a White Dog'  can be seen here:


https://wienerholocaustlibrary.org/exhibition/a-is-for-adolf-teaching-german-children-nazi-values/


I am in no doubt that didacticism and worthiness is fatal for good Art, but I confess that as an adult writing for children I did have a message I wanted to convey in all my MG books - I did want to use story to tell children something about History, and I know I have more stories I want to tell like that. I realise that if I know I have a message, I have to also make extra sure that the quality of my story telling and writing isn't damaged by any existing desire to use story to inform/warn and, I hope, empower children. Luckily, I am not alone, as I have an agent and publishers and editors etc to make sure that the story takes precedence, but it's an important consideration for me, and a real challenge. In the end, the story has to come first.





I have ambivalent feelings about 'The Water Babies' and its author. My mum and dad were Irish,  and I have read some appallingly anti-Irish things written by Charles Kingsley. Reading it now, the actual book is full of moralising. At the same time, I can't help admiring it - I think it is amazing that one children's book could have such power to change the fate of real life children - 'The Water Babies' got through to public consciousness, and had immense influence, helping to bring about the end of the use of climbing boys. 


"Black Beauty' by Anna Sewell was written primarily to draw attention to the cruel treatment of horses, but I think the reason why it is so loved is that it is beautifully written, and a wonderful story. 


I come from a very religious, Christian background, so I am very used to the idea of parables, and the idea of stories being told to impart some truth about life. I love, for example, the parable of the good shepherd, or the Good Samaritan.  I suppose I wrote a sort of a parable about the power of loving attention when I wrote 'Bloom', illustrated by Robyn Wilson-Owen. However, thinking about Art and the power of the unconscious, I realise that I discovered the parable after I had written it. I didn't set out to write a parable - I wasn't even sure what I was writing when I started - I just started to write a story about a little girl who loved a flower, and the words just came.






So I don't have any answers, just that attending this launch and reading this book has reminded me to look out for any clunky didacticism which might damage story, whilst remembering that I am an adult writing for children, and that does affect what I do. I would love my writing to help change the world for the better in however small a way, but that is a desire full of pitfalls. I want primarily to make Art, to be a story-teller, and I am inspired by amazing books which tell great stories. I think as writers we are all inevitably  influenced by our own personal values and belief systems when we write, and that will be communicated, overtly or not. I end with some inspiring words by David Almond from his website:


'To create and to pass on a story is a fundamental, human act. We’ve been sharing stories with each other since the beginning of human time. We’ll be sharing them until the end.'

DAVID ALMOND https://davidalmond.com/on-writing/


Every story that we write or read or act or sing or dance is an act of optimism, a move against the destructive forces that want to stifle us. 

https://davidalmond.com/about/






Monday, 20 September 2021

Interview with Children's Author Gill Arbuthnott by Joan Lennon

Welcome to An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, Gill! 

Gill Arbuthnott

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born and brought up in Edinburgh and went to James Gillespie’s High School: alma mater of Muriel Spark and thinly disguised in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Maybe something seeped into me there, because I always wanted to be a writer. It took a while though – I was a Biology teacher for 30 years, which hadn’t been part of the plan, but paid the mortgage while I tried to get published. I managed that in 2003, when Floris Books published my first novel, The Chaos Clock. Since then, I’ve managed to average a book a year, with a mixture of picture books, novels, popular science and history titles, all for children and young adults.



September is an exciting month for you, isn’t it?

It certainly is! Due to the vagaries of publishing and covid-related delays, I have two books being published this month and one in October, so it’s definitely a vintage year for me. From Shore to Ocean Floor (Big Picture Press) is a history of undersea exploration; Microbe Wars (Templar Books) is all about microbes and how they affect us. (Not only in a bad way, like covid, but all the good things they do for us.) And next month will bring The Amazing Life of Mary, Queen of Scots: Fact-tastic Stories from Scotland's History (Young Kelpies).



You started off writing fiction, but your recent books are non-fiction. How different is the writing process?

Not as different as you would think. I like to write non-fiction by finding the stories in it, rather than simply assembling facts. If you can bring in the personalities of the people involved it makes it far more engaging. This is something I learned during all those years of teaching: text books tell you about discoveries, but seldom about the people who made them. I found that my pupils were much more interested when it became clear that scientists were people too, with flaws and eccentricities and families of their own.



Design and illustration are very important for children’s non-fiction. How does that affect the job of writing the text?

I’m lucky enough to work with some great design departments and wonderful illustrators and I’m in awe of all of them. I don’t have any artistic talent whatsoever (just ask any of my former pupils about the diagrams I drew on the board…). I am gradually getting better at thinking in a more visual way about what will appear on a double page spread, which is how most of these books are organised. Occasionally, I even make a suggestion if I think a particular illustration would help to explain a tricky concept. I still find it astonishing to see my words brought to life in such a stunning way.

What are you most looking forward to, as the country gets back to something more normal after the pandemic?

Getting back into schools to talk directly to pupils and do science workshops, both of which are great fun. I usually do a fair bit of that, and I really miss it. Getting feedback from pupils is enormously helpful in improving my writing and giving me ideas for what to write next.

And what is next?

Aha… It’s still a secret!


To find out more about Gill and her books, visit www.gillarbuthnott.com