Sunday, 24 October 2010

A Tale of Too Many Cities

This is not a comment on the excellent City of Thieves, reviewed below, but a long wail about why so many books are called "City of ...." I have perpetrated five such books myself in the Stravaganza sequence with another to come (City of Swords) in 2012.

But it's not just me. Cassandra Clare has written four so far: City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass and City of Fallen Angels (I'm not sure about the order since I stopped after the first one - Bones, I think.) But John Berendt wrote City of Falling Angels about Venice and Paul Auster's New York trilogy also features a City of Glass.

Confusing, isn't it?

St Augustine wrote City of God so maybe we should blame him.

Anyway, City of Thieves is a very good book and a very good sequel to Castle of Shadows. (It has an equally gorgeous cover, which doesn't reproduce adequately, with gold foil and shiny black birds in full flight against the darkening blue sky.)

At the end of Castle of Shadows, Charlie (Charlotte) has lost her father, found her mother and become Queen of Quale. And she's still only twelve. The new book turns the spotlight more intensely on to Tobias Petch (Toby), Charlie's friend and fellow-adventurer. The two of them thought they had conquered Alistair Windlass, who killed the king, Charlie's father, but turned out to be Toby's own parent.

City of Thieves opens with Toby looking forward to seeing Windlass hanged. And this is just one example of Renner's clear-eyed and uncompromising approach to family. Toby hates his biological father, was horribly beaten by his late stepfather and is horrified by belonging to the Petch family who are all professional thieves. Charlie finds it hard to forgive her mother for her desertion in the first instalment.

But worse complications are to come. Toby's mother helps his father to escape the noose and just when Toby thinks he is going to be able to track the villain down, he is captured by his step-uncle, Zebediah Petch, who wants him to become his apprentice lock-picker, safe-breaker and general burglar.

The sections in which Toby is trained and his will subdued through beatings and other forms of bullying is horribly convincing. And the character of Alistair Windlass - who inevitably comes back into the story - is endlessly fascinating. In Windlass, Renner has created that rare thing in a book for children: a truly morally ambiguous character. He has killed more than once and is limitlessly ambitious (he used to be the country's Prime Minister, after all). But he has some of the qualities of timeless heroes too.

He is as fastidious about his appearance and dress as Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci, as clever in anticipating others' actions as Sherlock Holmes and as ruthless as Che Guevara.

Charlie's mother (the oddly-titled "Dowager Queen" - should be Queen Mother, surely?) is a scientist, a pretty hotshot physicist and chemist, who has accidentally invented a lethal weapon. And it's the plans for that which form the McGuffin of this story - the thing that Windlass must gain at all costs.

But Toby is a bit of a McGuffin himself, wanted equally by Windlass, Zebediah and by Charlie and his other friends at the castle. It's a thrilling read, that keeps you on the edge of your seat till the end but is also full of unexpected aper├žus about the nature of monarchy, weapons of mass destruction and political bargaining.

My only beef is that, having put her readers through the wringer, Renner leaves us wanting and waiting for volume three. Please, Orchard Books, tell us it's coming soon! You can even call it City of Something, as long as I can find out what happens to Toby, Charlie and the rest before too long.

Friday, 15 October 2010

People Love Reading or Please Listen - Reconsider

OK, guys; time to take to the streets again. In yesterday's so-called "Bonfire of the Quangos", Culture Minister Ed Vaizey announced the abolition, not of Public Lending Right itself but of the body that administers it and has done so admirably for the last 26 years.

There is so much wrong with this decision that it is hard to know where to begin. I could start by saying that the PLR Office is not a Quango in any meaningful sense. It's not like The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) for example, which decides which drugs to fund or The Audit Commission with investigative powers.

PLR does what it says on the tin: it establishes by the use of rolling samples of borrowings from Public Lending Libraries, how many loans have been made of which titles and recompenses living British authors of those books at a few pence per loan (currently around 6p). No-one says "well that author or that book is more deserving of payment than this.": it's a straightforward computational job.

If you have registered your titles, they qualify, assuming you are eligible in the first place: i.e. you are alive, British and have your name on the title page.

But although the principles are simple, the proportions and percentages have to be agreed among all contributors listed on the title page, the samples have to be carefully taken and the extrapolation done. Amazingly the outstanding current Registrar, Jim Parker, does this with a staff of nine, covering something like 133 million titles

There are surprising results among the most borrowed: J. K. Rowling at 96; Philip Pullman at 221; Bill Bryson at 246. You'd expect them all to be higher, except that their fans probably prefer to buy their books.

Can you imagine that this scheme will be more efficiently or cheaply run by any other body? (currently the rumour is that this function might be taken on by the Arts Council). Any additional costs to set up the running of it differently will come out of the pot of money allocated to writers. Nor could it possibly be "more transparent and accountable". The Registrar is accountable to the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (DCOMS), currently Jeremy Hunt. The loans are listed as transparently as  they can be on every printout made by every registered writer.

This sum of money, received every February is a lifeline for writers at a time of recession when we hear of books cancelled, advances slashed. For many writers PLR is their sole or substantial portion of their income. Writers like the late great Brigid Brophy and other members of the Writers' Action group, fought for a decade to get this payment on the statute books; she would be turning in her grave to see what is happening to it now.

Yes I know the PLR itself has not been abolished - only the Office. But does anyone really believe it will survive after the four years the current agreement has left to run? Please write to your MP, Jeremy Hunt the Secretary of State and Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, urging them to retain the Registrar and the PLR Office.

In hard times, people need to be able to borrow books for free and writers need some compensation every time they do so. 4,000 of us signed the petition; we need the support of all readers. Dust down your old placards and banners or PLR aged 26 will die aged 30.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Last week was about book-banning

Now censorship and book-burning are two different things in the way that eggs and mayonnaise are two different things, so I make no apology for using an image of one to illustrate the other.

The week just finished was "banned books week." Rhiannon Lassiter blogged about it with many useful links

And Lucy Coats wrote bravely and movingly about her own experience of assault here.
It really hit a nerve, as she got 44 comments and numerous private emails and DMs, not to mention over a thousand visits to the blog in a very short period of time.

Such blogposts were inspired by an American Professor's attack on the novel "Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson, published in 1999. It is about the horrible subject of rape and a young woman's reaction to it. I haven't read the book but I will now. Professor Scroggins from Missouri thinks it's pornographic.

This led to widespread Twittering using the hashtags #speakloudly and #bannedbooksweek. In fact I read so many lists of books banned for so many reasons that my head began to reel. My friend Anne Rooney wrote an article in New Hunanist here. 

In it she writes about a children's book illustration of a female anthropomorphised mouse who was sitting with her hands in her (clothed) lap. It had to go because someone thought the mouse might be seen as masturbating!

Has the world gone mad?

I have experienced some censorship in my time. In a non-fiction series about animals, illustration by photographs there was one slide of an elephant which the US publisher wanted us to change because it showed the bull's penis. It was so gigantic none of us - five of us looked at the slides together - had noticed it, thinking it was a leg!

Just in case you think these things always originate in the USA, I also had a book banned from Islington libraries once. It was a picture book called Nancy No-Size and the librarian objected to a page in which three siblings compare skin colour in a bath and the text reads "she wasn't dark like her big sister and she wasn't fair like her baby brother. So she wasn't dark and she wasn't light: she was no colour at all." (I quote from memory but am no expert on the books of Mary Hoffman).

Taken out of context, it looks bad but a/ it was about a mixed race family, like mine and b/had been preceded by pages in which Nancy thought she was 'no size at all"and "No age at all" because she was a middle child: equally nonsensical statements.

Actually everything in this story came from my own family. It was dedicated to my middle daughter of three, who was sometimes one of the two big girls and sometimes one of the two little ones. My girls had two female cousins with whom they shared a bath on visits, who were the same racial mix as them. One was dark like them; the other fair like her red-headed English father. They would compare skin tones and comment on them.

I was banned for "racism" but I think it would have been more racist to leave out skin colour in a book about finding your place in the family when you are not sure if you are short or tall, old or young.

Anyway, it's not pleasant to be banned and criticised for something the opposite of your intentions in writing a book and I feel for Halse Anderson. But I thank Professor Scroggins for drawing my, and many other people's, attention to her book.