Wednesday 22 May 2024

Too Nice, by Sally Nicholls, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart


                  This is a clever, accessible, little chapter book story about feelings and relationships. 

                  Teenager Abby has a problem, and it isn’t the kind of problem that gets much sympathy at first, especially from herself. 

It’s been just her and Dad for as long as Abby can remember, but now Jen has moved in, in step-mother role, and Jen is just too nice! Too full of compliments that Abby doesn’t believe, too much there all the time, giving Abby no space. Abby reacts to this by becoming rude, a liar, a ‘brat’ of a kind she doesn’t enjoy being. It needs a slight crisis to bring things to a head, and an imaginative surprise gift to Jen from Abby breaks through to real love. 

                  Beautifully handled, this is a story that evokes empathy for all three characters, Abby, Dad and Jen. Each of them is struggling, loving, trying to get it right … and finally succeeding.  Who knew that ‘adults are human being too’?! A revelation for some children, perhaps! 

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Fit to write by Anne Booth

 Tomorrow I am going to my second session of Pilates, and after feeling intimidated about the idea of it for years, after doing my first session last week, I am really looking forward to going back. It takes place in a church hall above a church, and is run by a retired ballerina, and the person running the class, and the other people in the group are so lovely. The main reason I am looking forward to going back is that I can feel the difference after  just that one hour. Like many writers the more I work the worse my posture has got, and I knew I needed help.

The week before last I went to my first yoga session on a retreat - over four days I had seven sessions, and that too was amazing. Who could have guessed that I had forgotten how to breathe properly? Again, I know it was good because I felt so much better after doing it, and I am now going to look for Yoga classes.

I want to keep writing into my old age, but I also want to be mobile, and writing for so many hours a day has not been good for my health, so I suspect yoga and pilates will really be necessary if I am going to keep on this writing malarkey!

What do other people do to keep writing fit?

Monday 20 May 2024

Rummaging through Long-lost WIPs - Joan Lennon

(Watty62 wiki commons)

As one project comes to an end, it's time to start gently simmering thoughts of the next one. And as a fan of recycling, I've done a little browsing in my files (and yes, that goes back a long way) of ideas I was excited about once upon a time. Hoping that in amongst all the unfinished bits and bobs there might be something I could really get my teeth into. Why not? I loved them once. Why not again? (And think of how much of the work would already be done!)

And in the way of these things, in an idle moment, I came across David Van de Kamp (a Serbian knitter/designer I follow on Instagram) musing in the same vein. He re-discovers an old knitting project - lifts it from its box - has a moment of loving reconnection - sees the lose threads - wonders what it was meant to be in the first place - gently returns it to its box and closes the lid ...

So far that's been me, too. I've rediscovered ideas without legs, or with just a leg and a half, or with too many legs. The idea soup has been well and truly stirred, but the bits that bob then just keep sinking into the depths again.

The lure of something brand new is getting stronger by the minute, though I don't look nearly as good without a towel as Archimedes. Yes, I think that's the way forward. I'm off to have a bath.

Pietro Scalvini (1737) (wiki commons)

Joan Lennon website.

Joan Lennon Instagram.

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Where do I come from? (part 2) by Lynne Benton

Last month I wrote about the origins of five famous children’s books.  I was fascinated to discover what inspired the writers to come up with such long-lived classics, and I hope some of you were equally interested.

Anyway, as promised, today I want to go on with five more famous children’s books and/or series.

The first of these is Mary Poppins, by P L Travers, published in 1934.

P L Travers’ creation, unlike her screen portrayal, is a “fierce, witchy heroine who imparts the deeper meaning of life to her charges.”  Travers moved among mystics and magicians, such as AE Russell (a writer on mysticism), WB Yeats, (as well as being a poet, he was a devotee of Irish mythology and folklore) and GI Gurdjieff, (a Russian philosopher, mystic and spiritual teacher) from whom she soaked up mythology and esoteric lore.  Mary, blown in on the east wind, is more of a shaman than an Edwardian nanny, able to understand the language of animals and stars and coming “from the Dark where all things have their beginnings”.  So forget Julie Andrews, then!  No wonder Travers was less than enthusiastic about Disney’s interpretation of her books!  (Though no doubt many more children have become attracted to the books purely because they enjoyed the film so much.  And anyone who saw the film "Saving Mr Banks", starring Emma Thompson as P L Travers, will have a little more idea of the origins of the books.)

Next comes The Chronicles of Narnia, by C S Lewis, published in 1950.

In their middle-class Belfast home, Jack Lewis and his elder brother Warnie enjoyed sibling camaraderie in their nursery, presided over by a large wardrobe.  Jack, obsessed by Beatrix Potter’s books, created stories about anthropomorphic animals.  In depressed middle age, Lewis, now an Oxford don, finally found a way through the wardrobe doors to the Christian allegory that lay beyond.  (For a great deal more about all the Narnia books, do read Katherine Langrish’s lovely book “From Spare Oom to War Drobe.”)

And now for three more recent books:

The first of these is The BFG, by Roald Dahl, published in 1982.

He’s bald, nobbly, scary, extremely tall and has a way with words.  He carries off children, at least Sophie, to an unknown land.  He turns out to be warm, funny and protective.  The BFG is Dahl himself, and Sophie his real-life granddaughter.  The land of giants derives from the Norse myths related by Dahl’s Norwegian mother.

Next, as if I could leave it out, is Harry Potter by J.K.Rowling.  The first book in the series of seven, Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, was published in 1997, and of course, as we all now know, it created a publishing phenomenon.

Rowling says “Harry strolled into my head fully-formed”, though it’s possible to glimpse a touch of Sherlock Holmes about him. She also says that Hermione is a caricature of herself at the age of eleven, and that Ron Weasley resembles a best friend from sixth form.  Her rich vocabulary has classical and mediaeval sources: Dumbledore is Middle English for bumblebee, while Muggles is jazzspeak for marijuana.

And finally, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, published in 2001.

This is described by its author as “Die Hard with fairies”.  The story of the teenage criminal mastermind is also indebted to Hill Street Blues, and also to “all the leprechauns the Irish author has grilled”.


And that’s the end of my ten books/series and their origins.  I hope you’ve found it as interesting as I did when I first read about what inspired the writers to write their famous books. 


Monday 13 May 2024

From Badger to Vixen by Sheena Wilkinson

This is a weird thing to link to writing, but bear with me. Over the years, I've become like a vicar who can make any apparently random subject relate to Jesus in a sermon. Only in my case, it's writing not Jesus. 

Exactly a year ago I stopped dyeing my hair. That might sound trivial, but I agonised about it for years.

My natural hair colour was very dark brown, and the grey hairs came through early, probably in my twenties. It did not occur to me for one moment that I could leave them be and they would gradually do their own thing, and that that would be OK. My granny's hair was jet black until she was about seventy (it wasn't, obviously), and my mother, even today at 76, has no intention of 'letting herself go'. And I was female. I was young. I was single. Grey? No way! 

For a while I kept the grey at bay (yes, I saw it as an enemy to be fought on all fronts) with natural henna. It was a messy business but my hair always felt good afterwards. Then, probably in my mid-thirties, the henna stopped working and I embarked on two decades of chemical dyeing, first at home (the stains on my bathroom floor and the brown-streaked towels bearing witness both to my clumsiness and to the tenacity of the chemicals) and then, every five weeks or so, at the hairdresser's. 

It was a pain. It was a palaver. It was very smelly. It was expensive. But not once, in all those years, was I tempted to stop. Not once did I think, grey's OK! It was rare to see a woman my age with grey hair: either they dyed it, or they hadn't started going grey yet. Any woman who did go for the natural look was regarded as a frump. Just look at how Mary Beard was treated, and compare that with, say, George Clooney. Because of course it's different for men. 

It's not that I spent all my time thinking about my hair. But every date in the calendar sparked the worry: what will my hair be like then? Will it be freshly dyed and therefore fit for the world to see? There was only ever a window of a fortnight for that. On about the fifteenth day (it was like having an extra menstrual cycle to think about), the telltale white line would start to appear. Then it would be root spray, coloured mousse, root mascara -- you name it, I tried it. Hair appointments always had to be booked for the days of book launches and public appearances and parties. My hair is quite fine, so the white parting always, to my mind, made me look as though I was balding. I knew that the constant dyeing wasn't helping its condition. 

silver fox with non-silver bride 

Lockdown was a game changer for so many women. Lots of my friends embraced their natural grey, and I was tempted. But I was getting married in 2021, and though I could do nothing about being a 53-year-old bride, it never occurred to be me to be a grey bride. Even though the groom had been grey for decades. And when that was over, I thought I can't do it now, or people will say, she got married and then she let herself go! Maybe sixty, I thought.

But this time last year, I cracked. I was fed up with this constant cycle. I was worried about what the chemicals were doing to me: they were certainly making my scalp burn in a way that didn't feel healthy. And -- because I am as clearly as suggestible as the next woman -- suddenly I seemed to be surrounded by friends, and people in public life, who were grey and gorgeous. 

the last event for which I had my hair dyed -- exactly a year ago

You could do a PhD in grey blending techniques, but I decided that none of that chemical stuff was for me. My hair had suffered enough and the healthiest, if not the easiest way was to do nothing. Let nature take its course. My hairdresser was unenthusiastic, telling me the dye covered the hair shaft and so my grey hair might seem even thinner. Deep down, I had a feeling she was wrong. I had an instinct that there was some nice grey hair just waiting for a chance to shine. And anyway, I had committed: whatever I had, I would deal with. I'm far too stubborn to change my mind so I prayed it would be OK. 

in London last summer looking badgery 

I'm not pretending it was easy. The first few months were tough - the badgery streak, the two-tone look, the fading of the remaining dyed hair to an unbecoming beige no-colour. But the grey kept coming through, fifty shades of it -- well, not quite, but there's certainly quite a nice natural highlighty thing going on. I had to be quite bold in some situations. I started saying, 'Yes, it's deliberate, I haven't just been too busy to go to the hairdresser' when people gave me funny looks -- which they did. 'I just wouldn't be brave enough' was something I heard a lot.' And the classic (from my hairdresser), 'Well, as long as you like it.'

yes, it took some guts to out looking like this

I do like it. I love it. My hair is in better condition than it's been for years. I love my new author photo where yes, I look older. I am older. I'll be 56 this year. Some people, including friends of mine, aren't granted that. And I'm so pleased to be living in a world now where there's not the same pressure on women to dye their hair, to deny aging, to fit societal norms. Of course people should have the choice and on one level they always did: nobody forced me to dye my hair. But as a feminist, and a non-conforming woman in many ways, it never occurred to 30- or 40- or even 50-year-old me that that was a choice I could make. 

new author photo 

So what, dear reader, if you are still with me, has that got to do with writing? Maybe not much. But I do liken that year of looking first pretty awful, and then a bit weird, and then sort of in flux and then, eventually, the way I'm meant to look, to the development of a novel from idea, through rough, even embarrassing first draft, to eventual polished book. And even more, it's the book I really wanted to write. 

loving it now! 

Thursday 9 May 2024

How can it ever work (part 2)? Anne Rooney

 Lsat month I wrote about the impossible economics of writing books as a way to make a living. Several people asked how the economics works for publishers if it's so bad for writers. The truth is that it often doesn't, though it doesn't 'not work' to the extent described in the article No one buys books. I'm not going to dissect the article here as its limitations have been well analysed already. Instead, I'll let the much better informed GalleyBeggar answer the question What does a book cost? This is a great breakdown of how much it costs to produce and sell a book. Depressingly for those of us who scrape a living writing books, it just confirms that even with a publisher paying the unusually high royalty of 10%, an author who sells out the print run of 3,000 copies can still only expect to receive £2700 for the 300 page book that will have taken them at least a year to write.

One important thing to bear in mind is that authors can be paid in different ways:

Flat fee: all they get, ever, except perhaps money from collecting societies for library loans and photocopying

Royalty: a percentage of the money the publisher receives for each copy of the book, typically 5-10% but can be less or (rarely) more. Remember the publisher typically receives less than half the cover price

Advance: a sum paid in advance, against royalties. So royalties will only be paid once the book has 'earned out' — has gained enough 40ps or 50ps for sales to recoup the money the publisher has already paid the author. Most books don't earn out, so most authors never get more than the advance. (You don't have to pay the advance back if it doesn't earn out.)

There might also be some money from foreign rights deals. 

(Some people will say 'yes, but then you get money from festival appearances/school visits/events'. Although some authors do, they are being paid for the day they spend doing that: it is payment for more work, it is not more payment for the book.)

Importantly, the publisher makes money even if the book doesn't earn out. Suppose a publisher paid an advance of £2000, with a cover price of £10 and the author earning 5% (and 5% to the illustrator), and the publisher got 50% of the cover price. The author would get 25p per copy. The book would have to sell 8,000 copies to earn out for the author, but that's more than are likely to be printed, so it won't. But if the publisher couldn't make money if the book sold out, they wouldn't publish it. If the publisher just covers costs and makes no profit, that only means shareholders don't get a dividend.* Covering costs means everyone has been paid for their work. As most people won't take a job that pays £2,700 a year, even for the supposed glamour of working in publishing, plenty of people are making a living — just not most of the people who write the books. 

People who work in publishing are not well paid, but they are certainly paid more than most writers. The industry is sustainable only because there are more people wanting to write books than there are books needed, so plenty of people will subsidise their own jobs. This is why the battle to get wide diversity in book publishing will be lost. People who are poor can't afford to subsidise their job as a writer by working for way below the minimum wage.

*Incidentally, to earn £2,700 from just owning Hachette shares and doing nothing, you need to invest only £90,000 in Hachette. Rather than pay to do an MA in Creative Writing, invest the same money in Hachette shares as you would run up in student loan and you can earn as much as if you wrote a 300-page book every year  for the rest of your life

Anne Rooney

Out now: 81 Mind-Blowing Biology Facts, Arcturus, April 2024


Monday 6 May 2024

The Sense of an Ending by Paul May

Yes, I am getting close to the end. This month I read Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner, the 2013 Carnegie Winner, and The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks from 2014. Neither book did much to cheer me up, even though both are about the human spirit in the face of adversity. Both books (spoiler alert) end in death, and in the case of The Bunker Diary (even more spoiler alert) everyone dies.

I found things to admire in both books. In Maggot Moon Standish Treadwell is a wonderful creation and his relationship with his friend Hector is touching and beautifully drawn. But the future dystopian world where Standish lives—or is it a 1950s world where the Nazis won the war?—that world seems to me very like the unconvincing stage-set the authorities of Motherland have built to fake a moon landing. There's not much to it—a street, a school, a housing estate and a weird building. It's like a TV series that's been shot on a very tight budget. What's very real is the extreme violence—a teacher beating a small boy to death, critics of the regime with their tongues torn out. 

And I wondered if The Bunker Diary is meant to be a metaphor for life. Is there a suggestion that although we imagine ourselves to be free we are really all in prison, locked in a bunker from which the only escape is death? Maybe. 

Once again I find myself thinking about the long shadow WW2 has cast over the Carnegie, though Kevin Brooks's bunker seems more likely to be an enhanced relic of the Cold War. How long is it before historical events fade from our memories? We no longer talk much about the Crimean war or the Boer War, though now the legacies of slavery and imperialism have returned with a vengeance. But the experience of reading and thinking about these two books has left me feeling depressed. Carnegie winners in the 2010s started grim and got steadily grimmer. I don't know, because I haven't read a lot of new children's fiction in the last few years, whether these winners reflect a general trend in children's literature. The winners were chosen by librarians, who do read widely among current publications, so I have to think that they are in some ways representative of what's going on. I'm hoping things will look up in the final ten years. There'll be a new winner in a couple of months time so I thought I'd look at the shortlist, and I got sucked in to looking at the judging criteria.

I found out some things. Here, for example, is why a non-fiction book is unlikely to win the Carnegie again:

'The whole work should provide pleasure, not merely from the surface enjoyment of a good read, but also the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards.' (From the Yoto Carnegie website, 2024)

The criteria are listed under the headings of Plot, Themes, Characterisation and Style. They appear to be specifically and only designed for the evaluation of fiction. No mention is made of non-fiction, though verse is mentioned, but it's hard to see how a non-narrative verse collection could win. And the list of questions judges are supposed to ask about the books reminded me of the kind of criteria used to make National Curriculum assessments in Literacy. 

It all makes me wonder how true is this statement, also on the Carnegie website: 'All categories of books, including poetry, non-fiction and graphic novels, in print or e-book format, for children and young people are eligible.'

There are awards for children's non-fiction but it appears that the Carnegie itself is, in reality, an award only for fiction, whether in prose or verse. It might be better if it called itself the Carnegie award for fiction and had done with it.

Just in case this all sounds a bit too gloomy, I have as usual been leaping ahead in my reading and can report that there is at least one book published in the last decade that ranks with the very best, so there's that to look forward to!

As In The Long Ago my blog/website