Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Have a very merry Christmas - no, really!

(This is specially for Lynn Price over at Behler Blog, who has nothing but the sea in California to look at - hah!)

This NOT going to be a "Bah humbug!" post about Christmas, because I'm sick of all those journalists like Charlie Brooker and Will Self and - well, just about everyone who writes about Christmas - moaning on about wasting money on presents, hating spending time with extended family and eating and drinking things they don't enjoy.

I LOVE Christmas! And this year, weather and travel arrangements permitting, we'll have all three daughters and their partners, plus my sister, so nine of us, followed by a visit from another four plus baby and another three plus two little boys. Magic! I can't wait to see my little nephews opening what we've got for them.

I have just written a new Grace picturebook and in it I say "Christmas was Grace's favourite day of the year, even better than her birthday.She loves everything about it - the tree, the presents, going to church, singing carols and eating a big Christmas dinner. And so do I.

So a happy Christmas from Grace and me. See you in 2010!

Monday, 14 December 2009

My books of the year

(not all published this year adults' and children's)

I keep a reading log and have done it for years. I tend to leave out the masses of children's books, books read for review or research and - yes - the ones I forget! But when thoughts turn in December to end-of-year round-ups, it's useful.

My books of the year are not necessarily the best books but the ones that made an impression for some reason.So I'll begin with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, which I read quite early on in 2009. It was a tip and a loan from a daughter and I loved it.

With a title like that, it sounds as if it could be twee but very far from it; there are some quite hard to take stories about the German Occupation of the Channel Islands in WW2. But I loved the breadth of it. And am sorry it will be the one and only novel from its author, who died in her 70s close to publication.

Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama was anther good read and much more graceful than The Audacity of Hope.

A great find was Pascal Mercier's Night Train to Lisbon. It was apparently written in German but I found the English version very satisfactory. It's the story of a middle-aged academic who leaves his job and life on a whim to seek out information about a Portuguese writer. In that, he is like one of my favourite Italian authors, Antonio Tabucchi, who wrote Sostiene Pereira.

The Children's Book by A.S.Byatt was a significant though not unflawed read for me (I blogged about it early on in my career as Book Maven). But I did admire the breadth of it, even when it annoyed, and I found it always readable.

Julian Barnes's Nothing to be Frightened Of was a book I'd meant to read for a long time and beautifully written. It's about his obsessive fear of death and his atheism and as I read it I couldn't help wondering how the death of his wife Pat Kavanagh, the literary agent would have affected, and been affected by his position.

Children's books I've enjoyed this year are: Frances Hardinge's Gullstruck Island, which I blogged about, Kath Langrish's Dark Angels, Marcus Sedgwick's Revolver, B. R. Collins' The Traitor Game.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Cormac McCarthy's typewriter

Well, here it is. It was auctioned for more than $250,000 last Friday. The proceeds went to charity but it's not the money that bothers me - he can keep it or not as far as I am concerned. What bothers me is that a bestselling author was, until recently, using heritage technology to write his books.

(Oh and there is a little side order of "What was the buyer thinking? That putting their fingers on the keys would enable them to write bestsellers too?")

Anyway, I heard Ian Rankin and Philip Hensher discussing this on the Today programme (not its first appearance here and yes, I do hear it every day). Rankin does use a word processor though has no idea how to "move chunks of text around"; Hensher, on the other hand, writes everything in notebooks, though I suppose he has to type it up at some point.

On what planet and in what century are these people living? I got my first AppleMac in 1989 and was composing direct on to a screen by 1995. Nothing short of total breakdown of the National Grid would see me back on a typewriter or scribbling in notebooks (great for notes though; the clue is in the name).

I'm so glad I was young (enough) to benefit from the new technology - laptops, broadband, Internet, email, Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc. etc. I'm an unrepentant gadget-bunny and every new development has helped my writing forward.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Good news for stories and writers

(This elevation is by DK Architects of Bath)

Two bits of good news for all who love to read and write books for children. Firstly, after four years' hard work, The Story Museum has found a permanent home in Oxford. Appropriately enough a "fairy godmother" came forward with a gift of £2.5m, with which they have been able to buy a building in Pembroke Street.

Rochester House is near Christ Church and another £11m will be needed to transform it into the vision of director, Kim Pickin, who has worked tirelessly towards this end.I can't wait to see it all come to fruition.

The second piece of good news is that Nicola Morgan, a continuing source of good, sensible advice on her blog "Help, I need a Publisher," about how to write publishable books for children and young adults, has started a new service. www.pen2publication.co.uk is worth a visit for anyone who feels they have written something that is almost there for a young audience.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

"I am the Guardian of our Children's Morals"

It has taken me 24 hours to find out who wrote the biopic Enid, which I saw on BBC4 last night. It was Lindsay Shapero - not that you'd know it from Radio Times or a slew of newspaper articles I read online. (I discovered she also wrote When Boris met Dave, which I enjoyed a few weeks ago).

Anyway, it said at the beginning that some bits of dialogue had been made up and I was dying to know which. The one in my title? Or "Childhood is a magical time" "My father was twice the man you'll ever be!' (to her first husband), "Last year I made more money than the Chancellor of the Exchequer" "Hugh is having a fandango with a floozy" (I do hope she said that!) "New beginnings are always marvellous!"

It was terrifically watchable, with a blinder of a performance by Helena Bonham Carter as Blyton, who deserves a BAFTA. (Lucky EB - we should all be so fortunate as to have posthumous biopics made with classically beautiful and talented actors playing us). Actually, she reminded me of my late Auntie Johnnie (real name Nora) who modelled her style on Wallis Simpson. All those high shoulders and tipsy little sideways hats and red, red lipstick - gorgeous!

The play took the view of the younger rather than the older of Enid's daughters - that she was a monster as a mother, wife and friend, not to mention daughter and sister. And it was chock full of symbols - the empty wardrobe, with the clothesless hangers clattering together on the rail after her father left home when Enid was thirteen, the fact that her womb stopped developing at exactly that time, her insistence on writing jolly anecdotes about the family dog while her husband was burying him in the garden ...

She was ruthless, competitive, ambitious and a ferociously hard worker. 6,000 words a day hunted and pecked on the typewriter first husband Hugh gave her as a wedding present, 750 books published, millions made in her lifetime and eight million a year now, over forty years after her death. I hope if Gillian and Imogen were even a hundredth as neglected and coldly treated as the play showed, that they got some joy out of their inheritance.

But it's still incomprehensible to me that she was and is such a success, even though I think I probably read every word she wrote when I was a child. Not one character, incident, idea or line of dialogue remains to me from that deluge of prose; she went through me like a dose of salts. The idea of reissuing her books now, or cleaning them up to be PC or having someone write sequels is anathema: there are so many better writers working in the field of children's books now - let's just bury Enid.

A footnote: I met Mr Waters, Enid's second husband, but never knew he was Kenneth. We weren't on first name terms. At least, not in that direction. He took my appendix out when I was not yet seven. I was very ill - "on the danger list for a fortnight" as family lore has it and my cousin Doreen got me red roses in January because I asked for them and everyone thought I might die (except me, I suppose).

Mr Waters offered me Enid Blyton's autograph and I said the 50s equivalent of "yah-hah!" but added "how can you get it?" "Very easily," he said, not looking a bit like Wedge Antilles with a hearing aid, "She's my wife."

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Death in Venice

I heard an item on the Today programme ?yesterday about how the native population of Venice is shrinking because of tourism. I had already made this point in my review of two Venice books in the Guardian here: http://tinyurl.com/yjndrbe

John Humphries said that people came to Venice for the cultural experience. Donna Leon said crisply that they came to Venice to shop! (and that most of what they bought was made in China). What she and other Venice residents wanted was not to have to walk further all the time to buy food.

Francesco (Venice is like a woooman) da Mosto made an incomprehensible point about Venice needing to get a divorce from the land.

I remember when we rented a wonderful flat in Caneregio that there was a lovely deli, a bit like this, in the nearby market. I hope it's still there.

There have been so many books set in Venice. My own City of Masks, Michelle Lovric's The Undrowned Child, Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord .. If you want to see a full list, use Jeff Cotton's wonderful site: http://www.fictionalcities.co.uk

I've read only one Donna Leon and didn't care for it but I liked the way she came across on Today. She has lived there for 20 years and should be able to buy her cheese locally.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Remembrance of Things Past

It has been a week for memories. Monday 9th was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember that day. Husband and I went into town for some forgotten purpose and, coming up the stairs at Oxford Circus tube station, we met the vicar of All Saints, Margaret Street, coming down. Father Hutt was as full of smiles as we were and I think all we said was, "Isn't it wonderful?' The following Sunday he mentioned this encounter in his sermon - how he and the two members of his congregation hasn't needed to say what was wonderful; we just knew.

So we all know when it came down but before this week did you remember when it was built? I found out when researching an adult novel set in 1980, that the Wall went up in 1961, when I was a dreamy teenager, faling in love in Spain with an English boy I never saw again.

Tuesday 10th was the exact 800th anniversary of the death of a hero of mine, Raimon-Roger Trencavel. He was the young viscount of Béziers, Carcassonne, Albi and Razés and I wrote about him in my novel Troubadour. Trencavel got the Jews out of Béziers before the massacre perpetrated by the Albigensian Crusade and he believed the Cathars would be safe there - as they should have been but for a freak incident. He rode on to Carcassonne and fortified it against the invaders but after a long siege came out to parley under a safe-conduct. Treacherously the French leaders seized him and imprisoned him in his own dungeon.

His titles were given to Simon de Montfort (Snr. - not the one the university is named after) while he still lived but on 10th November 1209, it was announced that Raimon-Roger had "died of dysentery." He was 24.

Wednesday, 11th was a day of memories for everyone, made even more poignant by the absence of any WW1 survivor at the Cenotaph. I observed the silence, wearing a red and a white poppy, in a coffee bar in Cambridge, with a friend. We had got the waitress to turn off the loud pop music but could not switch off the man lecturing his companion on LinkedIn.

I was having lunch at Newnham, my old college, which I hadn't re-visited for ten years and not much before that. I often dream about it though, its long corridors, the dining hall, where this week I was having a pleasant meal with a group of senior staff, the grounds and climbing in.

One of the guests was my old Director of Studies, whose retirement party was the reason I went back in 1999. She spent almost her entire working life there and must have admitted at least ten women for 35-40 years and yet she remembered several people and incidents from my cohort extremely vividly. We had a fascinating talk.

On one day this week Germaine Greer, who was also a Newnham alumna (she was doing a postgraduate course there when I went up) wrote an extremely stupid piece in the Guardian about how it wasn't worth reading Proust. I remember Greer as a tall, terrifyingly articulate and beautiful woman with a mass of dark chestnut-coloured hair. I wouldn't have dared to contradict a literary opinion of hers in those days but I do now.

I bet she never even finished A la Recherche, let alone read it several times, as I have done. No-one has ever written better on the subject of memory, not even my beloved Giorgio Bassani. And now that I have so many years to remember, I frequently relive Marcel's sensations in the last volume when he sees his friends at a party and believes them to be in fancy dress - so many of them are wearing white wigs, or walking with a cane, or are padded out to look fat, or have lines drawn on their faces!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Mistress of her craft

I have been resisting the urge to write about celebrity novelists but can hold back no longer. Literary agent Charlie Campbell wrote a brilliant guest post recently on Scott Pack's Meandmybigmouth blog, here: http://tinyurl.com/ykeabm6

He describes the publication of Martine McCutcheon's novel The Mistress as perhaps "the final straw, that wonderful Ratner moment, where the public feels they've had enough of this particular brand of patronising rubbish."

I love that "Ratner moment" and I wish I could believe Charlie Campbell was right. I heard Ms McCutcheon talking about her book on Woman's Hour not long ago and felt quite sorry for her. She is clearly a nice but dim sort of celebrity, who at least did write her own book, unlike so many, but she is also clearly not a reader.

Now, The Mistress is not aimed at readers like me, so why should I worry that the extract she read out was so painfully cliché-ridden? Again, I can't put it better than Charlie Campbell: 'Agents and editors are supposed to act as gatekeepers, to stop writing like this from ever being published.'

I think it matters more to me now that I hear of good writers having contracts cancelled and advances more than halved. There has always been rubbish but now it seems as if it's published at the expense of the good stuff.

I also heard Tracy Chevalier and someone else talking about the same phenomenon on the Today programme and good old Tracy said she was tired of hearing the argument that the sales of celebrity books financed the publication of better books with smaller markets. She said something like, 'they just finance the advances for more celebrity books' and I think she's right.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat - the eccentricity of the children's writer

In the most recent edition of The Author, Terence Blacker says in his Endpaper column, "There is something not quite right about those who write for children."

It gets worse: he continues, "Most of them, surely we can agree, have a small but significant psychological flaw which draws them back to childhood ...You have to be slightly odd."

Terence writes for children himself of course, among others, and much of his column concerned the continuing series about Ms Wiz, which has just reached number eighteen. I found it interesting because I am returning to Grace, a character I created twenty years ago for Amazing Grace,in order to write a fourth picture book about her.

But will it help me if I am "a little odd"? I'm not denying that I may be - though surely no-one ever regards themselves as odd? It's the other folk who are all a bit strange, isn't it? Especially if they don't invent dialogue in their heads, have conversations with imaginary people and suddenly glaze over in the middle of talking to other, real, people.

It got me thinking about the children's writers I know and they are many. Are they odd? They seem the height of sanity to me but one has a pet lobster, several use cats as mufflers and many write in garden sheds which range in sophistication from buildings named "Tuscany" to "The Story Shack" and some are clearly shoe-fetishists. One has a rich fantasy life on Facebook involving his beard, which too many of us friends encourage.

But is any of this MORE eccentric than the habits of writers for adults? And does it help? I think Terence is mistaking "rich inner life" for "eccentricity" which is easily done.I think the number of writers, for whatever age group, who are REAL eccentrics, as opposed to being posers with green carnations or whatever (I love you Oscar but don't think you were odd at all) must be very few. Answers in the comments please.

Maybe John Clare (though he ended up in an asylum, poor man) or W H Auden, who could never get warm enough and piled carpets on the beds of other people's houses where he was staying (once even a wardrobe apparently!). For that and his appalling personal hygiene I shouldn't like to have had Auden as a house guest.

But I DID invite him to my wedding party and I didn't know him - was that just a trifle odd?

Ho hum.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

PS - more on sequels, and Fanfiction

It's not just And Another Thing.There is a positive slew of sequels around. In children's books we had last year Geraldine McCaughrean's Peter Pan in Scarlet and now a "new" Winnie-the-Pooh book and indeed Hilary McKay's sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnet's A Little Princess. (That one's called Wishing for Tomorrow and I would have reviewed it here if Hodder had responded to my request for a copy).

In the world of adult books, sequels and prequels to the classics from Jane Austen to Daphne du Maurier have always been popular. (I blame Jean Rhys myself and the wildly overrated Wide Sargasso Sea, which opened the floodgates). Recently even Sebastian Faulks has produced a "James Bond."

But how different is this from fan fiction? It does the same thing, using characters and settings already provided by the first author and creating new plots. So it's only the quality of the pastiche that is an issue. Sometimes it's very successful:I'm a huge fan of Leon Garfield's completion of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which is almost a sequel, and Gilbert Adair's very stylish Alice Through the Needle's Eye. And I remember how much my daughter loved Silver's Revenge, Robert Leeson's sequel to Treasure Island.

I had to stop reading my own fan fiction on www.fanfiction.net because it was having a disastrous effect on my own writing! I was writing a pastiche of myself. So I drop in every now and again to see things like which characters from Stravaganza are attracting the most interest and so on. But I don't read it.

And I've never written a sequel to anyone else's fiction, though I had a very good idea for Five Grandchildren and It but was sort of beaten to it by Helen Cresswell. I imagine editors all over the UK are eyeing up children's classics and thinking what to plunder next.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

The last bastion of snobbery

Sorry for the hiatus, everyone; I've been in France. (If you want to know why you can read my more domestic blog on www.maryhoffman.co.uk)

One morning while I was there I caught part of a TV book programme that practically made me want to emigrate. Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière were being interviewed about a book they had written together called N'espérez pas vous débarrasser des livres. My French is far from perfect but I did understand Professor Eco to say that if Robinson Crusoe had been stranded on his island with some form of e-reader, his battery would have run out within hours, whereas the Bible he had with him kept him going for 21 years!

So, I think these long-headed fellows were talking about the durability and other advantages of printed books over electronic ones. Anyway, it made me think of another advantage - or disadvantage, depending on your point of view.

How will you be able to judge the taste, education, enthusiasms and background of a person whose home you enter if the day ever comes when you can't browse their bookshelves? What will happen to judging a person by the books they keep? You can't very well ask to look at their Kindle index, can you?

If I see someone has a good set of obviously read Dickens, Austen, Trollope, say for starters, I know we'll have something to talk about. Likewise The Myth of the Goddess or If This is a man or If on a Winter's Night a Traveller ...or Ulysses (unread copies don't count) or lots of books on mythology.

If, on the other hand, it's all Dan Brown and Kate Mosse, I know that whatever else we might have in common, it won't be our taste in literature. And people can be so hard to read, I'll really miss that useful set of clues when all their choices are hidden inside an A5 sized machine with a battery.

Monday, 12 October 2009

And Another Thing

And Another Thing is a brilliant title for a sequel and has the merit of being taken from Douglas Adams' own joke. I have always been a huge H2G2 fan, from the first time I tuned into it accidentally on the radio. But not a nerd, geek or obsessive I want to point out. Still I wasn't all that happy when I heard Eoin Colfer had been asked to write a sequel.

I believe Colfer is a lovely fellow (he even once said very nice things about one of my books in an Irish newspaper) but I read Artemis Fowl, didn't enjoy it, and felt no inclination to read any more.

There is a certain type of middle-aged man who has never quite got over or past the details of the alimentary system and, although this humour is supposed to be specially appealing to children, it never did to me and it doesn't now. In other words enough with the poo jokes!

So I was sceptical - along with gazillions of other fans, apparently. Colfer was even invited, randomly, by Facebook to join a group petitioning to stop him writing "Part Six of Three" as And Another Thing is so waggishly labelled. Being a sport, he joined.

But - much to my surprise - I loved this sequel! Colfer, whose book is being serialised on Radio 4's Book at Bedtime from tonight, is being trailed several times a day saying that the characters are Adams' but the book is his own. This is not quite true. What he has produced is a brilliant pastiche of Adams' Hitchhiker style, especially in the notes from the Guide.

Arthur Dent is not so prominent but Ford, Zaphod and Trillian are much in evidence. Characters that fans will miss are Marvin (the paranoid android) and perhaps Slartibartfast, though he is nicely referenced in the fjord-heavy geography of the planet Nano.

Characters there are a bit too much of are Random Dent and Trillian, who has degenerated from a clever astro-physicist into some sort of Glenda Slagg. New characters include Hillman Hunter (like Ford Prefect - geddit?) who is a joke Irishman, a personage Colfer is well able to stereotype.

I wonder whether what I enjoyed was Adams or Colfer - in other words the being back in that universe, peopled with Vogons and their dreadful poetry, Magratheans who build customised planets, the god Thor, who has an embarrassing video to live down, and the megalomaniac Zaphod with his stolen spaceship, Heart of Gold.

Whatever, I'm grateful to Colfer for bringing all this back to life. And another thing, if he'd just eliminate [sic] all the bottom stuff, I might even read another of Eoin Colfer's books.

Friday, 9 October 2009

It's Mal Peet!

Mal Peet's win of the Guardian Children's Book Prize was announced at their swanky new offices in King's Place last night. Exposure is the third in Mal's "football" series set in South America and , incredibly, only his fourth book. (His Tamar won the Carnegie Medal).

I haven't read Exposure (am really put off by the footballing setting, even though I know that's not what the book is "about") but I know there's a re-working of Othello in there and parallels with Posh and Becks (I don't think he'd dare strangle her).

Last year's winner, Patrick Ness, made a generous announcement speech after Julia Eccleshare had been through all the longlisted books, which was also nice for the authors there who hadn't quite made it to the shortlist.

And then Mal, appearing fleetingly like Boris Johnson in his astonishment at having won, made an amusing speech and was given a framed mocked up Guardian front-page. He had been unkind about the paper in Exposure and reckoned that the amount he had spent on buying it for 35 years meant, even with his award cheque, the Guardian was still quids in.

Mal was a co-judge, with me and Jenny Valentine last year when The Knife of Never Letting Go won and now he will have another go because part of the prize is to be judge next time. It's the only children's book prize judged by fellow-writers and a lovely one to win. Congratulations to Mal.

The other two judge were Celia Rees and Andy Stanton and the award is chaired by Julia Eccleshare.

Friday, 2 October 2009


The one underneath is by Waterhouse and, apart from the typical pre-Raphaelite red tinge to the hair, is most people's idea of the typical mermaid - young, beautiful, slim, with an obsession with haircare.

When I invented one in Mermaid and Chips (a Banana Book for Heinemann) twenty years ago, I thought "If mermaids are half-woman, half-fish, how come the female half is always the SAME kind of woman?"

So my Marlene was plump and middle-aged - more barmaid than mermaid - and rather brassy and vulgar. So, another stereotype, but at least a different one.

The mermaids in Michelle Lovric's The Undrowned Child (Orion) have learned their way of talking from pirates, so have rather salty turns of phrase, which take us a long way from Waterhouse. Their taste in food is also spicy, since they are great fans of curry. And they are vegetarians, like their author - and me - so I felt an immediate affinity with them.

They are only one aspect of a book absolutely stuffed with adventure - sharks, living statues, winged lions, ghosts, villains, spells, carnivorous seagulls and a headless butcher - and set in Venice, where Lovric lives for part of the year. It's quite gory in places but with a very feisty heroine in Teodora (Teo) who deals fearlessly with everything the resurrected evil Bajamonte Tiepolo throws at her. Teo is not a mermaid but has miraculously survived an accident at sea in which everyone else was drowned. But she is a water-baby and much helped by the cursing, curry-eating mermaids.

In fact, I'm beginning to think that mermaids are less, well, WET, than they used to be. Liz Kessler, also pubished by Orion, has a series of books about Emily Windsnap, an ordinary girl who finds that she becomes a mermaid whenever she enters the water. (This was incredibly inconvenient at school swimming lessons in the first book). Kessler has a fourth book out, Emily Windsnap and the Siren's Secret, with the series' signature gorgeously gold-sprinkled jacket. (Orion do produce seriously wonderful book jackets).

I recently interviewed Liz Kessler, along with Linda Chapman, "Titania Woods" and Elizabeth Lindsay on the subjects of fairies, mermaids, unicorns and all the things that feature in "pink" series books for girls. (Liz also writes the popular Philippa Fisher series about a girl with a fairy godsister). She said then that it wasn't actually the fairies or the mermaids that attracted her. "I am attracted by an idea for a story, and by characters, in the same way that I imagine all writers are."

And she loves the "what if" principle of fiction that can turn girls into mermaids or daisies int fairies. But she is adamant that her heroines are proactive and adventurous and that boys would enjoy the stories too if they could only get past the stereotyped notion that images like Waterhouse's conjure up.

There's a programme all about mermaids next Tuesday on Radio 4 (11.30am on 5th October). I wonder if it will deal with Lorelei and Melusines, Rhinemaidens and Sirens? Because those amoral creatures aren't girly at all.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Footprints in the Air

Yes, this is a second post about Naomi Lewis, who died in July. But if you have a problem with that, just think about all the column inches you've read about Dan Brown this week - or at least seen from a distance. A lifetime of nearly a century's literary achievement weighed against a handful of badly-written, toshily-plotted novels that have somehow made the big time. No contest.

Naomi Lewis, whose memorial was held at the Art Workers' Guild this week, never made a lot of money. I don't know if she ever had a book in the bestseller lists. But from the second half of the '50s when she published her first book, swiftly followed by A Visit to Mrs Wilcox, to 2007, when her version of The Snow Queen was illustrated by Christian birmingham for Walker Books, Naomi Lewis was a class act.

The great and the good of the children's book world were there to celebrate her life and work, many of them bearing witness (that's how it felt) with anecdotes and readings. There were Margaret Meek, Elaine Moss, Brian Alderson, Pam Royds, Judy Taylor, Jane Nissen and Judith Elliott, all from earlier eras of Naomi's long reviewing career. But also Julia Eccleshare and Geraldine Brennan, who edited her for the TLS and TES respectively. And many editors and agents still working in the business, like Janetta Otter-Barry and Caroline Sheldon and Laura Cecil.

A very frail Russell Hoban, now in his '80s, surmised that a healed animal of some kind had "put a cross on Naomi's door" and there were many reminiscences of her rescuing creatures, especially pigeons. we even heard a BBC recording of Naomi herself talking about untangling pigeons' feet from the threads that cripple them in London streets.

There were memories of Naomi's flat in Red Lion Square from those lucky enough to get into it (Russell Hoban talked about how he and Leon Garfield had speculated about penetrating that inner sanctum but never succeeded). Antonia Robinson mentioned the tottering piles of books six feet or more high and the mazes she had to walk between them, sternly adjured "not to touch anything."

Naomi used to pretend to be a witch as often as a good fairy to the many children of her acquaintance and to be able to grant wishes. Sophie Herxheimer the illustrator re-told how a wish Naomi had given her mother, Susan Collier, as a teenager was used thirty years later to ensure the safe return of Charlie the cat, who had been missing for days. How pleased Naomi must have been to hear that story!

There were also many recollections of the creative writing courses for adults that she ran at the City Lit which continued informally after her official retirement. Students would just continue to turn up and find an empty room and Naomi would continue to teach them. No-one paid anything but she might acquire gifts in kind like a bag of apples. Naomi herself appeared hardly to eat and there were stories of many lunches to which people were invited in Red Lion Square or Conway Hall where no-one recalled any food being provided!

But when a meal was actually taken it would be strictly vegan for Naomi and woe betide a fellow guest who might want steak. "You may want one but you will eat it without my presence."

David Lloyd, her last editor, at Walker Books, imagined a heaven in which Naomi Lewis was taking tea with Hans Christian Anderson, on whom she was a world expert. She had gnomically informed David once that all pigeons were twins and he didn't know what to do with the information.

Her editors often found her maddening since she wrote over-length by about three times and was no respecter of deadlines. A.N. Wilson at the Evening Standard, Geraldine Brennan at the TES who waited in vain for seven years for a promised article, David Lloyd who expected a book on pigeons, Julia Eccleshare, who said she was "impossible and inspiring" in equal measure.

"What are you reading?" was always Naomi's first question whenever you met her, and her own knowledge of literature was both wide and deep. She wrote her first poem at six years old and her last at 97 - nearly a century of poems poured out of this remarkable woman.

The memorial event was skilfully put together by her brother Toby, who said touchingly and truly that he had know Naomi longer than anyone in the room - for about ninety years; her nieces Gina and Rae and her great-nephew Alexander, who finished the occasion by reading her poem "A Footprint on the Air."

Few people could have trod the earth more lightly and valued it more highly than Naomi Lewis. But she leaves an indelible impression for the many who knew her or even just met her occasionally.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Four guardians

Four very strong titles on the shortlist for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. Siobhan Dowd was on last year's shortlist too, with Bog Child, which went on to win this year's Carnegie Medal.
Sadly, Siobhan died in 2007, but that did not preclude victory for what her publisher called "the big one."

The Guardian is a pretty big one too and Terry Pratchett will be delighted to be on the shortlist with his Nation - something very different from his 30+ Discworld series or his books for younger children, such as Maurice and his Amazing Educated Rodents, which won the Carnegie Medal.

Mal Peet has won the Carnegie too, with Tamar, and was a Guardian judge last year. Now he is on the other side of the process, with Exposure, the third of his not-football-novels set in South America, this one drawing for inspiration on Othello.

Morris Gleitzman makes a worthy fourth contender, with Then, the sequel to Once. Holocaust novels have been fashionable (if it isn't distasteful to put it that way) since The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas but books like Gleizman's and Markus Zusak's The Book Thief are altogether more authentic novels.

The judges - Patrick Ness (last year's winner) Celia Rees and Andy Stanton, with Julia Eccleshare as Chair - have a hard task to come up with one winner out of such a shortlist. Their decison will be announced on 8th October.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Recent novels

Two books I have been wanting to read. Any book of Margaret Mahy's is a treat to look forward to and Linda Buckler-Archer's Time Quake is the third in the trilogy that began with Gideon the Cutpurse. It continued with The Tar Man and for along time this last book was announced as Lord Luxon, which would have been tidier. But somewhere along the way, someone decided it was going to be called The Time Quake Trilogy and so the last title was changed (unnecessarily to my mind).

Margaret Mahy's book has also had a different title. In New Zealand where Harper Collins published it last year, it was called The Magician of Hoad. And if you go to the Faber website in the UK it has a huge subtitle shown on the jacket as The Battle for the Heart of Hoad.

I promise to get on to the content soon but must just add that Heriot's stylish cover shows a huge dragon clutching and gnawing diamonds. It's a nice image but I would just like to point out that there is no dragon in the story and the only diamond in the book is the name of a town. If I were a paid-up Ann McCaffrey or Christopher Paolini fan and had bought this handsome hardback on the jacket's promise, I might want my money back!

Mahy has created the closest thing to a High Fantasy that she has written for a long time; it's a complex plot covering a long period so I won't summarise it all. Heriot is the hero, a boy with special powers - a common enough theme. But he also is inhabited by another consciousness which is usually dormant and that is splendidly done. He has prophetic visions though oddly the one he has right at the beginning is apparently forgotten; it is certainly never returned to.

Then there are the three princes of Hoad - Betony the megalomaniac, Luce, who wants to be the Hero and Dysart, the one who is supposed to be mad. Dysart and Heriot become friends and Heriot is forced to become the King's Magician. He goes from being a boy to a strong young man, with a thieving street urchin as his companion, but knows that one day he must make his mind whole again by coming to terms with his "occupant."

Margaret Mahy is one of my all-time favourite writers and, though I don't think this is her best book (the Changeover still has that status for me), it has some wonderful ideas and moments in it. And there is more to come from her, I hope.

Linda Buckley-Archer too promised much with the first two books of her trilogy, featuring Kate, Peter, the 18th century Gideon and the anti-gravity Time-Travelling Machine. (If you look on the net, you will find that the first two book titles have been changed to The Time-travellers and The Time Thief, but I must just get over it!).

There is no way that any reader could start with the third book and have a hope of knowing what was going on, in spite of several recaps. There have been so many comings and goings between the 18th century and ours and so many proliferating versions of the characters in parallel universes that no amount of "Previously in this trilogy ..." could help.

Perhaps because of the long wait for the third book, I felt a little let down by it. Kate, the feisty heroine brought up on a farm, suffers the most from her re-location in time. She is fading and has a tendency to "fast-forward" if not earthed by holding on to Peter. This leads to some repetitive descriptions. And I think it's a real flaw that we find, after all the hoo-ha with time machines, that the Tar Man can travel to other centuries just by holding on to totemic objects and using his willpower.

Still, the Tar Man, Gideon and the villainous Lord Luxon are great characters and I shall look with interest at anything else by this author.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

If people would only behave sensibly, there'd be no plots at all

I was going to blog about a couple of YA novels, which I will do very soon but two trips to the theatre have reminded me of some unrealistic feelings I sometimes have as a reader/spectator, which I don't have as a writer.

On of the plays was Racine's Phèdre, in the Ted Hughes translation at the National. I've always been a tad sceptical about "Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée" because it appears to exonerate the character from all actions. Its all very well in real Greek myth, where characters behave according to predestined patterns, and in Greek tragedy which still seems close to it but by 17th century France it seems a pretty feeble excuse.

And the play is so monolithic, with nothing by way of sub-plot or entwined plot strands that you are left with this two hours of "incestuous" lust which is eating this middle-aged stepmother up. (Actually Helen Mirren is in her 60s but the age gap between Phaedra and Hippolytus would not have been so great - there isn't really the toyboy element that the casting of Mirren and Dominic Cooper introduced).

You can tell I wasn't really engaged and I wanted to tell her to pull herself together! It reminded me of watching a good TV dramatisation of Conrad's Nostromo many years ago. There are two men and two women - very neat but both men are in love with the same woman (shades of Midsummer Night's dream but Conrad had no Moly juice). I remember grumbling at the screen, "Why can't you just love the other one?"

Has anyone else wanted to say to Cathy "How can you like that horrible man Heathcliff? Don't you know he hanged Isabella's little dog?" Or begged Dorothea not to marry Mr Casaubon?

But life isn't like that and nor is fiction. People don't do the tidy thing and I never expect them to when I write about them. In fact they behave in all sorts of unpredictable ways even to me who have the ridiculous notion that I created them.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Beyond Black and Red - the Best books?

I'm a late arrival at this party but you might have seen the list of the sixty best books of the last sixty years published by the Times on 3rd August. It begins with Orwel's Nineteen Eighty-four in 1949 and ends with The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. You can read the full list here:

Of the sixty, six are books written for the children's or teenage market: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950); A Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956); Watership Down (1972); Northern Lights (1995); Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) and Twilight (2005). I have read all these though not all sixty.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the last that has excited the most vitriolic comments. Now, one does not look at the Comments section of any Online post for the least crazy responses but it's interesting to see just how much acid is thrown Stephenie Meyer's way. I did a little trawl to see what else was published in 2005 and found: Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, The Sea by John Banville; 1599 by James Shapiro; Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood; A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka; Beyond Black by Hliary Mantel and many other heavyweight literary contenders.

So yes, there is a perversity in the choice (though they could have done worse and nominated the ghastly Saturday by Ian McEwan, or Kate Mosse's unspeakable Labyrinth, both also published in that year). But perhaps this is a new and different meaning of "best" as Arthur Dent might put it? Perhaps they meant "most influential" or "most significant" or "best-selling." But it can't be the last, since Dan Brown isn't on the list.

So hard to fathom what Meyer is doing there.

In the end, all such lists are subjective and this one is even a little prophetic, since 2009 isn't over yet. And in case Sarah Waters thinks they are pre-judging the Man Booker prize, she should note that Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers, their choice for 1980 and Graham Swift's Waterland (1983) did not bear away the palm.

And Meyer, if she reads Comments sections at all, will surely be like Liberace, crying all the way to the bank.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Tender Morsels

I came to this book with tremendous prejudices, based on the synopses I had read. So I’ve decided not to précis the story. Most reviews mention that it is a re-working of the Brothers Grimm story Snow White and Rose Red, so I will re-cap that instead:

Snow White and Rose Red are sisters, daughters of a poor widow, who live with their mother in a remote cottage. They are devoted to each other though Snow White is the more domesticated of the two. One night in winter there is a knock at the door and a great black bear asks for shelter from the snow. Encouraged by their mother, the girls groom and cosset the bear, who is gentle and becomes a family friend.

He leaves in summer to guard his treasure from dwarves. Three times the girls see the same dwarf, trapped by his beard, in a tree, in a river and in the talons of an eagle; each time they rescue him by cutting off some of his beard or tearing his coat. The odious little man is ungrateful to them.

The fourth time they meet him, he is gloating over an array of stolen gems and becomes incensed at the sight of the sisters. Just then a black bear comes roaring out of the forest. The dwarf pleads with the bear to take the jewels rather than hurt him, or to eat the “tender morsels” of the “two wicked girls.” The bear kills him with a blow and reveals himself as a handsome prince in disguise, enchanted by the dwarf. He marries Snow White and his previously unmentioned brother marries Rose Red and they live happily ever after.

Now, Tender Morsels is not a re-telling of this story; it is what used to be called in my daughters’ schools a “creative extension.” And it extends both fore and aft. The short prologue, ignored by most reviewers, who can’t wait to get on to the rape and incest, is told from the point of view, first person, of the dwarf, whom Margo Lanagan names Collaby Dought. He has just had his first sexual experience, with a fellow-orphan named “Hotty Annie”. After the deed, she makes patterns with her fingers on his forehead which show him a land of his heart’s desire, where everyone is shorter than him and he is well-respected.

This makes it hard to hate him when you need to.

The other “fore-extension” is about what happened to the widow before she lived the idyllic life with her two differently-hued daughters, in the rural cottage and it is this part which put me off when I first read about it. But Lanagan is trying to create a situation so horrible that a young teenage girl could bring a whole alternative world into being just by wanting it enough. The sort of world Elizabeth Fritzl might have imagined. It might seem strange to say it but the repeated rape and incest and the gang rape are not the most important parts of the story; they are merely the catalyst that brings about the transition from one reality to another.

The “aft-extension” is about what happens when the mother and her two daughters cross back, at different times, into the real, dangerous world. In between there is the marvellous episode of the bears.

It is in the part about the bears which made me believe the exaggerated claims made for Lanagan’s imagination and writing style. In the real St. Olafred’s – a sort of all-purpose Teutonic town where people have names like Jans and Todda – there is an annual bacchanal where young men are clothed in bearskins and given licence to roam around chasing and kissing girls. (Lanagan says this is based on the bear ritual of a town in Catalonia).

One breaks through into the otherworld of Liga and her daughters, Branza and Urdda, and becomes the Good Bear of the Grimm story. But there are others less gentle and less gentlemanly. As I say, everything about the bears is quite wonderful and leads me to hope that there is a better book to come from Margo Lanagan.

Because this one isn’t quite right. It is an uneasy mix, with a sort of Robin-McKinley- on-acid feel to it. Or Angela Carter meets The Truman Show. And the minute you are reminded of Angela Carter, you sort of lose patience with Margo Lanagan, who, for all her obviously huge imaginative powers somehow lets the story get away from her.

Because it is broken-backed. Once the mother and daughters are re-united round about page 320, there is still another third of the book to go. What could she possibly put in it? The story starts up again, introducing new characters, new bears even, and then, after a prolonged description of the women’s reintegration into the real world, an ending so piercingly sad for Liga, the mother, who was once the abused child, that it is unbearable (pun intended).

The message, or one of them – for it is as full of messages as a post-Bettelheim view of the Grimms can be – is that most men, with a few honourable exceptions are nasty, brutish (and sometimes short). Indeed the brutes come out better than the male humans. And the male humans who have abused Liga are given a horrific, though magical realist, punishment at the end, which no-one seems to have noticed. (Maybe some of those who rushed to condemn the book didn’t actually finish it?)

It’s not a book or a view of sexual relations that I should have wanted to offer my three daughters, all now living with good men, when they were teenaged. Not because I am outraged by the sex scenes but because I am depressed by the world view in which they take place. Lanagan imagines the beast within the man so much more vividly than the man within the beast.

But it is a terrific read for all its faults. And a book worth our serious consideration.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

History and Memory

Continuing from my last post about remembering the dead of 800 years ago, I have been musing on the writing of historical fiction. It seems to me that the novelist must give both halves of that phrase equal weight. That is, get the history right then write the book you want. And if you must tweak historical facts then you are in duty bound to give a note to that effect.

This is the UK cover of my latest historical novel for teens, Troubadour, out here on 3rd August and in the US, with a different, photographic, jacket on 16h August (Bloomsbury in both cases). This time I’m not apologising for the shameless plug – just trying to show this is something I have grappled with.

People are always trying to tell me that the historical novel is dead or, as a variant, the historical YA novel in dead. To take the first, have you seen the Man Booker longlist? Thirteen titles, of which ten in some way or another deal with the past and apparently around half of the 132 books considered by the judges had historical themes. That seems pretty healthy.

In YA books on this side of the pond, the success of recent novels by Celia Rees, Sally Gardner, Julia Golding, Linda Buckley-Archer and Marie-Louise Jensen seems to point to a genre far from moribund. Oh and Adèle Geras, Katherine Roberts, Mary Hooper and Ann Turnbull. Funny thing is: they are all women. Apart from Kevin Crossley-Holland, not many men are writing in this genre now. Interesting. History is no longer about or even by chaps apparently.

Perhaps this a legacy of the Georgette Heyer and Mary Renault days? Philippa Gregory and Tracy Chevalier certainly continue this tradition for adults but there is also C.J. Sansom, and less literary figures like Bernard Cornwell. The male writers in YA seem to prefer spy stories, gritty contemporary realism or dystopian futures.

In last Saturday’s Guardian there were two pieces that struck a chord with me. One was Anthony Beevor’s article Real Concerns:

“We play with facts at our peril,” says Beevor, author of Stalingrad and such other weighty books of modern history. He also coins the hideous word “histo-tainment” which will doubtless catch on, particularly since we Brits are currently being subjected to “Desperate Romantics” a TV series showing the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a sort of boy band – “Entourage with Easels” as its own publicity says - and previously Michael Hirst’s “The Tudors.”

"Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history ... And we wanted people to watch it," is a comment attributed to Hirst in a section of the Wikipedia entry for the series headed ‘Departures from History’ (Yes, on Wikipedia!)

A recent historical novel for teens began with the death of Richard 1 (the Lionheart) in France. The name of the crossbowman who shot the fatal bolt was Pierre Basile; Richard, dying of gangrene, issued a pardon to his killer but the young man was nevertheless flayed alive and hanged after the king’s death. A gruesome tale but in this work of fiction the killer was given a new name and lived at least a further forty years to be a main player in the novel.

Fine, you might say; poetic licence. I might disagree but surely it was the author’s responsibility to add in a note at the end that she had changed history to suit her story?

The other article was a long interview with Booker prize-winning novelist Penelope Lively on Memory:

"I see myself," [Penelope Lively told Sarah Crown], "as someone manipulated by history." Presumably referring to her childhood in Egypt which she wrote about so beautifully in Oleander, Jacaranda, and the Second World War which determined where she lived and went to school. In that sense we are all manipulated by history.

But if we try to turn to the tables by manipulating history itself, we have an obligation be upfront about what we are doing. Most writers of historical fiction don’t want to produce “histo-tainment,” though we do want to entertain.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Lest we forget

This week, on 22nd July, was the exact 800th anniversary of the massacre at Béziers. Did you read anything about it in the papers? See an item on TV? Get a newsfeed or other alert about it? No, neither did I.

So I'm going to write about it here.

The Albigensian Crusade was launched by Pope Innocent 3rd against the Cathars in what is now the Languedoc region of France and mustered in Lyon in June 1209. It was led initially by Arnaud-Aimery, the Abbot of Citeaux, who was a Papal Legate.

When they reached Béziers, they sent its bishop in to negotiate with the citizens to hand over the 220 or so heretics listed as being in the town. They refused. By a fluke, the French army got into the city and started looting and killing.

People shetered in the cathedral of Saint-Nazaire and the church of Mary Magdalene, whose Feast day it was. They were all slaughtered - men, women, children, priests - burned or hacked down and the churches set fire to. It was on this occasion that the words "Kill them all - God will know his own" were attributed to Arnaud-Aimery.

He could have said them; he certainly wrote to the Pope saying that his army had killed 20,000 people that day. Twenty thousand people, two hundred and twenty of which were designated heretics. You can do the maths.

What does this have to do with books? I have written one about it, called Troubadour, published on 3rd August. So you can regard this as a shameless plug. Or a memorial to the brave citizens who were murdered 800 years ago in the name of religion.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Death of a fairy

I suppose I first met Naomi Lewis at a publishing party about thirty-five years ago. Over the next three decades, she was always there, always the same, a tiny figure dressed in black (invariably) and always at the centre of a group of fascinated listeners.

Chris Powling confided early on that he believed she was a fairy. She certainly knew how to enchant. I used to take my three daughters to some of these parties and she was unfailingly kind to them and genuinely interested in them. She heartily approved of the fact that we were all vegetarians (this is no longer true of the youngest) and I could not get her to read Peter Dickinson's The Dancing Bear, which I thought was his best book, because she would not even consider a story which touched, even sympathetically, on any harm to animals.

She explained to me at one such party - the only way we ever met - about how she rescued London pigeons that had cotton or nylon tangled round their feet. Although I share her compassion for animals, I would find it VERY difficult to pick up a pigeon, let alone untangle anything from its claws.

Her reviews of children's book in the Observer were always illuminating and beautifully written. And her collections of re-tellings of fairy stories will remain on my shelves for ever.

She was ageless and asexual and able to do things I couldn't, like a true fairy. It's a few years now since I'd seen her at a party but I had no idea that she was only 26 months short of her centenary. I don't know what her actual funeral will have been like, but I like to think of it as William Blake's vision of a cortège of grasshoppers and a rose-leaf for a bier.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

In praise of writers

This weekend there was a conference in Bristol all about Diana Wynne Jones. Not like the fanfests that are Harry Potter or Terry Pratchett conventions but but a proper academic conference dedicated to the work of one writer, which is a rare honour - especially in the children's book world. Sadly, in the end Diana herself was not well enough to attend, which must have been a disappointment for her as well as all those delegates and speakers gathered together.

Still, it must have given her a warm glow and writers need this. They need constant praise from reviewers, fans, peers, academics and family members, because their work is necessarily solitary and without feedback. This is why they experience such pain when they get a bad, or even snide, review.

Recently my namesake Alice Hoffman reacted so badly to a less than positive review of her latest novel in the Boston Globe that she posted the reviewer's address and phone number on Twitter and encouraged her readers to write or ring to blast her with their displeasure. Hoffman has since apologised and deleted her Twitter account but the bad smell remains.

We all hate bad, lukewarm, innacurate or spoiler reviews - I had one in the Times once that began "This book made me feel sick"! - but there is only one possible response: dignified silence and a hope of boomerang karma.

The other side of the coin is that you don't know how to rate praise from someone until you know what else they like. I've lost count of the number of fan e-mails I've had that say "You are my second favourite writer after X" where X = someone like Christopher Paolini!

It might be over-fussy to care about the literary standards of those who praise us. But I'm afraid I do. And that includes reviewers. But I won't be tweeting about it.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

A first and big feet

This is the first time ever that the Carnegie Medal has , in 72 years, been awarded posthumously. And it has gone to Siobhan Dowd, for Bog Child, the last book she finished, just a few months before her death from cancer in 2007.

A very shouty David Fickling, who published all Siobhan's novels, said she would have been "so wickedly delighted to have won ... the Big One." It was an emotional moment when the prize was announced and all three of Siobhan's sisters were there to accept it on her behalf, Denise thanking David and the two other people who had helped to launch Siobhan's career - Writer Tony Bradman and her agent Hilary Delamere.

But it was not an emotional decision; the book has been widely praised for its beautiful writing and the accomplished interweaving of the plots of hunger strikes in Northern Island and an ancient corpse of a young girl found by archaeologists. It tells the story of Liam whose older brother is close to death in prison, following Bobby Sands, and the history of the child found in the bog.

Earlier, Catherine Rayner had charmingly accepted the Kate Greenaway Medal for Harris Finds his Feet, a picturebook "about a learning curve" in which a hare grows into his outsize feet. Much was made of Catherine's own size eights, which were discreetly hidden behind the podium.

Behind me were sitting an earlier short-listed author Linda Newbery and 1976 winner K M Peyton, in front of me Siobhan Dowd's agent and beside me one of the judges. It was a special place to be on a special day.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Parental Guidance

I had to read this, didn't I? And I found it absolutely compelling, in spite of its flaws. (Must write a post one day about how page-turning does not necessarily = excellent).

I actually think it's much better than the Booker Prize-winning Possession, where the story in the past was so much more interesting than the one in the present, and almost a masterpiece.

It is big in scope, the plot taking us from 1895 to the aftermath of the Great War, and it is well written. I'll do the synopsis quickly because if you read literary reviews at all you must be aware of the underlying story.

It charts the development of four families, two called Wellwood, one called Cain and one called Fludd. (Now you'd have to be VERY secular and ignorant not to see the Biblical overtones in this choice of names). Olive Wellwood, who recalls Edith Nesbit, is Socialist whose children's stories keep the wolf from the door when her husband, Humphrey loses his job as a banker through writing inflammatory articles. They have seven living children, only one born after the beginning of the book, but in time we learn that not all seven share the same two parents.

Olive's sister Violet lives with the breeding pair as an unpaid nurse and nanny and there are many comments about who is the real mother, the one who gives birth or the one who raises the child, which gain an added poignancy as the children's biological parentage is revealed.

Humphrey's brother Basil is a real banker and has two children, the older of whom flirts with Marxism in Germany. Prosper Cain has two children too and is a widowed Major working at what will become the V & A. Three more children for the monstrous genius Benedict Fludd, a potter who sexually abuses his two daughters, with his wife's knowledge and then makes obscene pottery based on their genitals. (He is clearly suggested by Eric Gill, although one reviewer referred to him merely as a "bully").

Are you keeping up? That's fourteen children and adolescents lined up near the beginning of the novel. But they are not all. The two most interesting are not from this Edwardian class of money, privilege and the luxury of having political opinions. Philip Warren, the self-taught artist found hiding in the V&A in the first chapter, and later his sister Elsie both end up in the Fludd household. A German puppetmaster has teenage sons; the young people proliferate like William Morris leaves in the fabric of the novel.

Olive and Humphrey Wellwood are in their way monsters as bad as Benedict Fludd; incredibly selfish about their sexual appetites and need for flattery, they also neglect their children and think they don't need to be told who their parents are. Olive compounds this by leading a sort of vampiric life, sucking the childhood out of, in particular, her favourite eldest son, Tom. Each child has a book written specially for him or her, not for publication.

This is a kind of extension of the labelling that all parents are prone to do to their children: the sensitive one, the clever one, the unconventional one. Olive pins her children's lives to these stories as unemotionally as if she were collecting butterflies and doesn't notice when the stories no longer fit.

But there are other monsters in this book too, namely Herbert Methley, a ghastly naturist novelist who preys on young women and is the cause of two illegitimate pregnancies.

So, a large cast of characters and it is unwieldy, particularly near the beginning. Byatt tells the names of every guest at Midsummer Party given by the Wellwoods - and what names! Pomona Fludd, August Steyning, Griselda Cain, Florian Wellwood. Not content with that, she has to tell us what every single one of them is wearing, in some detail. And this is not the only time.

This is partly what stops it short of being her masterpiece. Either she needs a braver editor or she needs to listen to the editor she has. In this encyclopaedic charting of details, which can be very telling, she lapses into the flabby because of not knowing where to draw the line between what she knows (and has thoroughly researched) and what the reader needs to know.

And we all know what's coming don't we? 1914 looms like a brooding presence over the whole book. But for Tom, a more personal, localised tragedy removes him from that option. His mother dramatises his story without telling him and that violation, piled on top of the physical and sexual abuse that caused him to run away from his private school and become almost a wild boy of the woods, precipitates him towards a different end. What's the good of having enlightened creative parents if they can't save you from torment and then betray you publicly?

In a spectacular display of parental neglect, Edith Nesbit and Hubert Bland lost their son Fabian to a tonsilitis operation performed in their kitchen when he was only fifteen. They had forgotten that he shouldn't have food before an anaesthetic and, left alone, he choked on his own vomit. I'm sure A S Byatt knew this story. Her own son was killed in an accident at the age of eleven. These facts resonate throughout The Children's Book.

Towards the end, when we are in the thick of the war and its aftermath, Byatt interleaves a poem written by Julian Cain about the names soldiers give to the trenches and I couldn't read it. I didn't want to read a poem at that point; I needed to know who survived and who didn't. I doubt I was alone in that.

And she has a tendency to introduce charcters and tell us lots about them and then abandon them.

But my God, she can write! No-one else I know has pulled off so well the descriptions of imaginary works of art, particularly those of Benedict Fludd and Philip Warren. For those alone it is worth reading The Children's Book.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Bearded author expelled from Facebook

Famously bearded children's author Philip Ardagh (the best-selling Eddie Dickens books) has until recently been a very visible (well, partly) presence on Facebook, regularly commenting on the status of friends, many of whom are also children's writers and illustrators.

Until he took it into his head to wish someone a happy wedding anniversary and then compounded the felony by wishing someone else a happy birthday. He received two warnings from Facebook about abusive behaviour and has now disappeared from the site.

All his posts have also been removed.

But Philip's friends have not taken this lying down; as well as petitioning Facebook to reinstate this harmless if bumbling giant, many of them have donned similar beards in protest (see the Book Maven, above).

But wait - could this all just be a cunning plan? Philip has a new book out - four in fact - called Grubtown Tales, published by Faber. Surely not even PA would stoop to PR that involved his Facebook friends making fools of themselves in photoshopped beards?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The tantalising gap

The charm of this photo of two laureates embracing justifies its place here, even though it is a bit blurry! The Maven was sitting on a windowsill 31 floors above Tottenham Court Road/Oxford Street (on the inside, naturally) on Tuesday and taking photos from a distance over the heads of a large and enthusiastic audience.

The tension was ratcheted up as more and more lovely people came to tell us what a great job Mike Rosen had done for the last two years (hear, hear) and what an exciting two years we had to come. Viv Bird from Booktrust, Sue Wilkinson from MLA, Toby Bourne of Waterstone's, Lord Chris Smith ("So nice not to be an MP these days!"), Julia Eccleshare, and then Mike Rosen, the outgoing Laureate.

He's started the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, the A-Z of Poetry (from Agard to Zephaniah) and the Poetry on YouTube project, which his son Joe has been working on. He made a dramatic difference to a school in Cardiff, the subject of BBC4 documentary and has launched the Just Read initiative for schools (of which more anon). And he has been a powerhouse of energy as a champion of children's books and reading.

Mike said we are at a vital moment in the history of the book, when we need to decide whether they are for everyone or for a self-selecting minority.

Then came Andrew Motion, the outgoing Poet Laureate, who has worked closely with the Children's incumbent in the ten years of the younger laureateship. He described the title as an "honour, a benediction, a commendation and a challenge" and if anyone knows what he's talking about it's him.

Then came at last the big announcement - that the Children's Laureate for 2009-2011 would be
Anthony Browne.

This, although not a surprise, had been a well-kept secret. It was time for another illustrator, since we hadn't had one since Quentin Blake, the first, and Anthony Browne is a hugely popular and judicious choice. He has won the Hans Anderson Medal, so has enormous prestige internationally. More importantly, his work, with its gorillas and chimps and references to art and disturbing background details in which floral wallpaper might turn into pigs if you don't keep an eye on it, is instantly recognisable to and enjoyed by children.

He will be a terrific laureate, concentrating on picturebooks and the "tantalising gap" between words and pictures. He will get us all playing the "Shape Game" that he invented with his brother Michael - there to play it again on stage at Centrepoint. As Anthony said, "Everything comes from somewhere else."

The Maven expects some very good things to come from this appointment.

Monday, 8 June 2009

The malodorous one is 21

To Notting Hill for a twenty-first birthday party. Kaye Umansky's Pongwiffy, the witch with a personal hygiene problem, celebrates her majority this year by being re-issued by Bloomsbury.

The first title is Pongwiffy Back on Track, about the O'Lumpick Games, so very topical. But there are six backlist titles, all re-illustrated by Nick Price in the new look you can see on the witch's birthday cake.

Bloomsbury are bringing out one a month, so you can follow the smelly witch's fortunes like a soap opera.

It was a very happy occasion, with no need at all for air freshener as this very popular author celebrated her latest success. Kaye Umansky is a great champion of short funny books for children and has certainly written many of them herself.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Another Frances LIncoln story

Well, I know they are one of my publishers but this is a good news story. We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures has just won a special award in the category English 4-11 Best Children's Illustrated Book. It was a bold move to choose to illustrate such a set of concepts and Amnesty International were the publishing partners. Many illustrators, such as Jane Ray and Marcia Williams, contributed pictures which are far from grim.

And at a time when Aun Sung Su-Kyi is on trial again and we are not to be shown any further images from Abu Ghraib we might think there's never too early an age to introduce children to the concept of Human Rights.

The Book Maven's been away, sweltering in record-breaking heat in Italy. Then she came back and found it almost as hot here. Not to seem ungrateful, she is glad that it will be a bit cooler, with so many trips to London coming up.

And just to avoid charges of partisanship, she raises a metaphorical glass to Usborne Fiction (who have not published her) in celebration of their first five years. They are marking the anniversary with a competition to find new young writers. Full details are at:

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Moi, j'aime le noir

I've blogged about thsi book before in my Bologna report and now I have a copy of my own, with an English translation.

Marre du Rose is a book I'd like to see every little girl in the western world read! "Sick of Pink" is what the title means and it begins, "Moi, j'aime le noir."

You and me both, sister! What does pink mean to you? To me it means Katie Price, Barbie, favours at weddings that cost an average £20K in the UK (Yes, average! Yes £20K!), rosebuds and kitten noses on cutesy stationery etc etc.

Black means midnight, shape disguising chic, witches' cats, dark chocolate, Gothic, oh and yes = beautiful. What's not to like? Of course I'm not advocating funereal outfits for seven-year old girls, just an acknowledgment, on book jackets and elsewhere, that there ARE other colours! And not just purple, turquoise and lilac either.

I LOVE this book and I hope it will be published in the UK and America. And sell gazillions of copies.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Diversity and perversity

The winner of the first Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Award is Christy Burne with Takeshita Demons. Her novel, about a Japanese schoolgirl, will be published by Frances Lincoln and she wins £1,500.
Geraldine Brennan wrote a thoughtful piece about the award and the need for more diversity in children's books in the Times:
and opened the floodgates to a horrifying reaction in the comments. The very least was along the lines of "they should publish their own books."

And these are responses to a broadsheet article, albeit online. I've found the same with the Guardian website. It's so bad that I've almost decided never to read online comments on anything, since they always seem to bring out a hang 'em and flog 'em, send 'em all back where they come from squad of commenters, who, I hope, represent a tiny minority of the population.

More news from Frances Lincoln is that Janetta Otter-Barry, former Children's Editorial Director, is to have her own list. Janetta will publish about twenty books a year in a very hands-on way as commissioner and editor. For the main FL children's list, Maurice Lyon will be Editorial Director. And both lists will continue to have a strong multi-cultural flavour.

This is in accord with the beliefs and principles of their founder, Frances Lincoln, who died unexpectedly, aged 55, in 2001. Since then the company has been run by her widower, John Nicoll, who has continued to publish children's books that accord with Frances's philosophy.

How pleased she would be with the new developments.

Monday, 11 May 2009

May books

May 7th and thereabouts has become a very popular date for publishers to bring out new titles for juniors and teens. Here is a selective list:
N.M. Browne Warriors of Ethandun
Fiona Dunbar Tiger-Lily Gold
Adèle Geras Dido
Liz Kessler Philippa Fisher and the Dream-maker's Daughter
Katherine Langrish Dark Angels
Tabitha Suzuma Without Looking Back
Leslie Wilson Saving Rafael

Now, I have not managed to read all of these yet but I can tell you that two of them at least are corkers. I read Saving Rafael some time ago in proof and thought it very strong. It's basically a love story of a German teenage girl in Berlin before and during WW2 and her Jewish friend Rafael. Some of it makes for very bleak reading but it's not a run-of-the-mill tale of star-crossed lovers and Leslie Wilson keeps you guessing till the last minute about whether they will escape and survive. An earlier novel of hers, Last Train to Kummersdorf, was very well received.

Completely different but very accomplished is Katherine Langrish's Dark Angels. This writer arrived on the scene with her three books about trolls ( a trollogy?): Troll Fell, Troll Mill and Troll Blood. Dark Angels is different again, a story set in the 12th century, about a boy called Wolf who escapes from a punitive monastery and finds a wild elf-child, who has been abandoned by her people.

Both of them are captured by Sir Hugh, a crusader and troubadour, and taken back to his home, where his daughter Agnes is intrigued by both of them. Sir Hugh is maddened by grief for his dead wife and believes that the elves could restore her to him. So it falls to Wolf to try and teach the child to speak.

But a plot summary doesn't really do this book justice. I loved the way the final part spiralled into some very weird places but never out of control.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Coraline the movie

I saw this last night, in glorious 3D, with special specs, such as I haven't used since I was a child. Not the cardboard framed, one red, one green lens effort of back then but something more like regular shades. We must have been quite a cool-looking audience; in fact the photographer from Laika took a picture of us all specced up.

It was a visually stunning realisation of a book that just begged to be made into a film.

At first it was a bit of a shock to hear Dakota Fanning voicing Coraline but of course it made good economic sense for her to be American and it's an American film company. The second shock was the arrival of a character who doesn't appear in the book - Wyborne (Wybie) Lovat - whose grandmother owns the house.
He serves two functions: a sounding board for Coraline, who would otherwise have had to spend a lot of time talking to herself and someone for the boy viewers to identify with.

Once past these changes, I was struck by the film's fidelity to the book. They both have the very strong USP of the little girl who goes through a door in the wall of her parents' new apartment and finds an alternative mother and father in the one next door.

At first they seems a refreshing change, since they actually have time for Coraline, as well as cooking her favourite food and creating a wonderful garden for her to play in. This is in direct contrast with her real parents, who spend all their time at their computers, expecting Coraline to amuse herself.

But at least her real parents have real eyes! Other-mother and Other-father have buttons sewn in where they should have theirs. And Other-mother, who is rapidly revealed as the mastermind behind Coraline's Other-home, says she can perform the same little adjustment for Coraline as a condition of her staying in the preferable flat for ever.

That's when Coraline decides she would rather have her original life. "The needle's so sharp, it won't hurt" is Other-father's idea of reassurance.

The set-pieces are quite spectacular: a hundred blossoms really do bloom in Other-garden - and multiply exponentially; the mouse circus sequence is a tour-de-force of Busby Berkeley-ish exuberance and the scenes towards the end when the Evil Mother's powers are challenged and her elaborate traps demolished are visually stunning.

The grotesques that are Coraline's neighbours in both worlds - Miss Spink and Mis Forcible (voiced by French and Saunders) and Mr Bobinsky (Ian McShane) - are really OTT grotesque. And there are two things that work better "visually" in the book. One is the scene, in the cellar in the original, where Coraline finds that the concept of Other Father has been unravelled by the Beldam. He tries to warn the girl but is unable to stop himself from attempting to hurt her. In the movie, he charges towards her on his mechanical preying mantis in the garden and collapses through a bridge. It's spectacular but doesn't compare with the creeping sinister, clutching, open- mouthed, eyeless figure in the cellar.

The other is that the Beldam's hand, which gets in through the door in the wall, is in the film a kind of spindly metal scurrying thing. But you don't really need to make Neil Gaiman more scary; that severed hand with the red-painted fingernails is quite horrific enough.

I'm also sorry that it's Wybie who crushes the hand at the end. Bring in a boy if you must but don't let him take anything away from Coraline's heroism and resourcefulness; in Gaiman's orginal she lures the hand to its destruction by a trick that requires a cool brain more than a hot head.

But these are quibbles. It's a spectacular film and a triumph for the animators at Laika who spent four years lovingly creating every detail. It will linger in the mind a long time, so be careful what child you take to see it. Not for those under ten and/or of a nervous disposition.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

The long, the short and the confusing

Here they are: Henrietta Branford in colour and Wendy Boase in Black and white. Their names are commemorated in the Branford Boase Award whose shortlist has just been published. It is a prize for a first book for children or teenagers and not only the author but the editor of it.

Before we get on to the shortlisted authors and editors, a word or two more about the women in whose memory they are being honoured. Henrietta was a writer, who produced two dozen book, from picturebooks to novels in the round about thirteen years she had from her "late start" at the age of forty till she was lost to breast cancer.

Wendy Boase was a charismatic editor at Walker Books, one of the founder members with Sebastian Walker and Art Editor Amelia Edwards, who had edited Henrietta Branford's work. They died within weeks of each other in 1999, Boase also a cancer victim, and the award was set up in their joint names. This is the tenth year.

The first winner was Katherine Roberts, who later wrote the magnificent I am the Great Horse, and others over the years have been Marcus Sedwick, Meg Rosoff and Frances Hardinge.

This year's shortlist is a bit confusing. Here it is:

The Traitor Game by B.R.Collins edited by Emma Matthewson, Bloomsbury
The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt, edited by Bella Pearson, David Fickling Books
Flood Child by Emily Diamand (formerly Reavers' Ransom) edited by Imogen Cooper of Chicken House
Between Two Seas by Marie-Louise Jensen, edited by Liz Cross of OUP
Bloodline by Katy Moran, edited by Denise Johnstone-Burt of Walker Books
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, edited by Denise Johnstone-Burt of Walker Books
Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls, edited by Marion Lloyd of Marion Lloyd Books

Last year's winning writer was Jenny Downham, whose Before I Die was reviewed in many places alongside Sally Nicholls' book because they were both about main characters with fatal illnesses. Sally's book won the Waterstone's award.

But Before I Die was shortlisted for the Guardian Award, which Patrick Ness won with The Knife of Never Letting Go. Marie-Louise Jensen's Between Two Seas was on the shortlist for the Waterstone's award that Sally Nicholls' book won but Marie-Louise's second book, The Lady in the Tower, has also already been also on the shortlist for this year's Waterstone's prize.

Which is all another way of saying that all children's book prizes have different eligibility dates. It would be wonderful if they all, regardless of when the prizes were decioded and presented, covered the same time period!

Anyway, this is a list full of stonking good books, well worthy of the women whose work it commemorates and I don't envy the judges their task.