Monday, 31 January 2011

A Cat and Mouse post

Mati, the Tygrine Cat, exploded on to the children's book scene a few years ago, whiskers twitching, tail lashing, golden eyes aflame. And now he's back, in Inbali Iserlis' sequel The Tygrine Cat on the Run (Walker Books). I must admit a prejudice favour of this magnificent animal and his stories: Mati is an Abyssinian and I've had two of those. Sadly both my handsome boys had short lives but I can still appreciate such a fine figure of a cat.

The premise behind the books is that when all cats were created, there were two rival tribes.The Sa Mau were the killers and the Tygrine the playful ones. But all modern cats have both instincts and Mati must do much to hold both traits together.

We meet him still with the colony of cats at Cressida Lock but soon aware of an approaching danger worse than any they have faced before: he has to conince the cats to leave and find a new home and not all are convinced. It is a book in the fine tradition of animal stories for children and young readers and one that no cat-lover will want to miss.

The boy in Penny Dolan's book really is a boy and not a mouse, fortunately since I have brought him into such close proximity with the Tygrine Cat.It's rather a treat to have found two good junior novels to blog about. And A Boy called M.O.U.S.E. is a treat in itself. It's a chunky read at nearly 450 pages but will suit just the right child reader - as well as me!

And it's beautifully designed and decorated, which makes it easier to handle the long and complicated story in the kind of book that used to be described as "picaresque". Mouse is the grandchild of Epsilon Epton, an aged and rich man. But the intervening generation - Mouse's parents - has been wiped out in a shipwreck and his Uncle Scrope is casting evil looks at his vulnerable baby nephew, the rightful heir to the Epton fortune.

Mouse is whisked unexpectedly out of danger but ends up in an institution that owes a lot to Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby. But it's not just the school that conjures up Dickens. The Punch and Judy man, the teeming streets of London and especially the backstage cast of characters at the Albion Theatre - all recall the Victorian master of the rags to riches story.

Once we get to London it's a thoroughly enjoyable romp of villains and comeuppances, hide-and-seek and illusions, theatrical plots and cunning plans, sharing unlikely friendships and dodging enemies. And, like Dickens, Dolan gives us a really rousing ending with all the ends tied up.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Libraries again - the Oxford Movement

Last night there was a meeting organised by the Oxfordshire Anti-Cuts Alliance (OACA)specifically about libraries. Conservative-run OCC is planning to close 20 of its 43 branch libraries - or rather to withdraw funding from them and offer them the opportunity to be run by volunteers. Last week I talked on Radio Oxford's Breakfast show with Julie Hayward of the Headington Library support group and Keith Mitchell the OCC Leader about the insult to qualified librarians and users this proposal represents.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I have been a campaigner for libraries for over twenty years so will hardly be surprised that I was there. And it did this old campaigner's heart good to hear the passion of the debate and the excellence of the arguments offered.

This is what happened: The first speaker on the panel was Stephanie Kitchen a library user, new to campaigning but having done her homework, who said that the library budget represented less than 2% of the Council's budget. Then Steve Squibbs, a UNISON steward from Hampshire libraries and a Library Assistant himself, told us about the situation there, where, for example 9 out of 11 libraries on the Isle if Wight were up for closure.

Andrew Smith, the Labour MP for Oxford East said, as did many later that the Central library in Oxford's Westgate's Centre, designated as a Hub library, was not a convenient or affordable alternative for many users. He has called for a Commons debate on libraries next Tuesday, at which he will speak. He quoted the 1964 Museums and Libraries Act of 1964 " It is the duty of the Secretary of State to superintend, improve and promote the public library service in England and Wales."

Jeremy Hunt had responded to Smith that the closure of public libraries does not automatically breach the Act. But these closures were just announced on 26th November, with no consultation.

The fourth speaker was Philip Pullman and as usual he delivered a corker of an address, dealing elegantly with a loud heckler in a black hat. He reminded us that it is Keith Mitchell's job to protect services and added that the volunteers idea was patronising rubbish.

Anyone who has the time, the energy, the expertise and the will to offer their services as volunteer is already doing so. Which of the voluntary tasks they were undertaking would Keith Mitchell like them to stop doing in order to run libraries? Pullman spoke about "the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism" that does not understand anything that doesn't work for profit, including libraries.

He spoke about the way in which that had infected publishing and bookselling and he refuted the idea that he and other writers spoke out for libraries only because they were feathering their own nests. He was doing it not for money, but for love, and no-one who heard it could have doubted that.

There were over 300 people at the meeting and it seemed as if all of them wanted to speak. Neil Clarke of the newly-formed Save Botley Library Campaign said 400 people had come to a meeting where Keith Mitchell was ridiculed. After the Leader left, the group rejected completely all suggestions of bidding to run Botley library with volunteers, but that hadn't stopped Councillor Mitchell writing on his own blog that they had spoken favourably of doing so.

John Power urged us to get hold of a "corporate complaints form" from Council offices because each complaint had to be logged. A library user from Bampton, a village near me, had made the very sensible suggestion to David Cameron - her MP and mine - that there should be higher Council Tax bands for houses like the one just sold there for nearly £4m. He ignored it as he did her poinmts about cracking down on tax evasion and avoidance.

Linda Hayward pointed out that the only consultation that was going to take place would be after February, when the decision would have been made and would be only about the process of bidding to keep libraries open with volunteers.

Jonathan Neale of the University and College Union thought we were facing a turning point. He had marched with his own students and been moved by their banners claiming their right to learning. UCU will go on strike if the cuts go ahead, with support from the NUT and Civil Service Unions.

Sarah Bentley of "Our Woodcote Library" said the Central library Hub would be useless to her users since there was no bus from Woodcote to Oxford.

There were far too many contributions to record and my apologies if I have spelled anyone's name incorrectly. But these are the main messages for campaigners:

• Stick together and oppose all the cuts; the case has not been convincingly made that there is need for any cuts in Oxfordshire, which had a 17% increase in its allocation from government.
• Never be drawn into the argument about what could be cut in order to pay for libraries.
• Have no part in the bids for Council support to run the libraries on a volunteer basis; they have not thought through the problems with privacy issues and the Data Protection Act, let alone the Safeguarding implications about volunteers working with children.
• Support qualified librarians, whose skills are being trivialised by the volunteer suggestion.
• Share information, ideas and contacts across all library groups.
• Support the National Library Read-in protest on 5th February organised by Alan Gibbons:
• Come to an organising meeting, also at Oxford Town Hall, on 1st February.
• Lobby the Budget meeting of Oxfordshire Council at County Hall at 8.30pm on 15th February.
• Join the Demonstration against the cuts on 12th February - Assemble 11.30am Manzil Way East Oxford and march to Bonn Square.
* Join the National march for Jobs, Justice and Growth on March 26th in London (phone 07503169657 to book a place on a coach)

I shall be reading and speaking at Bampton library on 5th February at 10am; Philip Pullman will be at Central library at 12 noon and there will be read-ins at Littlemore (10 am), Blackbird Leys (11am) and Botley (11.30am)

If the Council and on the wider scale the coalition government could understand just how unpopular and - more importantly to them - vote-losing these measures are, THEY WILL REVERSE THE POLICY, as they did with the funding for sport in schools and the Booktrust bookgiving initiatives.

And I had last night the wonderful feeling that Oxfordshire people would play a really big part in this.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Ghost of a Chance

It is very unlucky to sit down thirteen to dinner, particularly if you are the thirteenth diner, as Eva Chance is. But it is particularly unlucky not to have a place laid for you or any food served to you – because no-one can see you are there! So begins Ghost of a Chance, the new novel by Rhiannon Lassiter, published by Oxford University Press.

It’s not too much of a spoiler, given the book’s title and the cover tagline, “How do you solve your own murder?” to reveal that Eva spends a lot of the book trying to find out who is responsible for her death.

Rhiannon Lassiter got her first, two-book, contract when she was nineteen and I know this because it was just a year after we had delivered her to Oxford University. Rhiannon is my daughter and is just seeing her fourteenth book published. It is a tribute to her writing that I forget this fact after a paragraph or two and just read her books as if they were by someone I had never met.

Of course there is the odd detail that reminds me: a fascination with peacock feathers, which I share, and with extremely dilapidated houses, which I don’t. Bad Blood, her previous spooky novel, was inspired by a friend’s house we had stayed in up in the Lake District, but Rhiannon made it much shabbier than it really is, with a kind of creeping decrepitude that gave the novel its original title of “Blight.” The last time we stayed in the Lake District house it had been given quite a makeover and was really impressively smart.

It would take a lot of time and money to do that to where the Chances live – the building always referred to as the House, with a capital H. Eva’s ancient grandfather, who has brought her up after the suicide of her teenage mother sixteen years earlier, has lost what control he ever had over the fabric of his home. Not only is it subject to the normal ravages of time; the malevolent presence of several vengeful ghosts ensure additional difficulties: indelible bloodstains at the foot of the stairs, recurring grime and cobwebs in the Solar, nameless forces that make thorny branches wound the gardeners.

And Eva, who has always been able to see ghosts, knows several of them by name or appearance: pathetic lonely boy St John in the nursery, spiteful Maggie the chambermaid, the Stalker, who is heard but not seen, and the terrifying Witch in the cellar. (I remembered briefly that Rhiannon believed as a small child that a terrifying Witch haunted our cloakroom that had the high level flush). Perhaps the saddest ghost is that of Adeline, Eva’s mother, occasionally glimpsed rowing a wooden boat on the lake like Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott.

To the dinner party at the beginning of the book come the three aunts, Cora, Helen and Joyce, the last two with partners, Cora with her cat. The discussion is about how to make the House profitable again and someone suggests Ghost Walks. From then on the climax of the story is inevitable, with the hastily spruced up House invaded by unwary members of the public.

Peacocks scream, accidents happen - some serious, people go missing, murders are attempted or achieved and Eva is no nearer to solving the crime of her own death. Her grandfather and Cora are in hospital and her only allies are unlikely ones: the local twins, Kyra and Kyle and the spiteful ghost Maggie. They, with very little help from outside, are pitted against the evil of the Witch-ghost and of a very flesh and blood human murderer.

It is a fusion of several genres - ghost story, crime novel, psycho-horror – all satisfyingly woven together at the end. And although I had read it before as an emailed File, I still stayed up till after midnight to finish it.

I asked Rhiannon to comment for me in my capacity as Book Maven, about how this book came about.

Rhiannon said:

For many years I've wanted to write a book set in a stately home but didn't have the right idea for it. Country houses are full of history but I prefer to write in modern (or futuristic) time periods. Towards the end of working on Bad Blood I started sketching out the very bare bones of a stately home story but in those first few chapters Eva was an ordinary girl with siblings, parents and friends.

I was thinking towards some sort of mystery or murder and somewhere during the first 10,000 words I had a sudden insight "what if she's the victim in this murder story?" Then I had to go back and rewrite (the first of many rewrites!) and reshape Eva's character and background. With one fell swoop siblings, parents and friends vanished – and so did Eva, becoming an invisible and ghostly denizen of her family home.

Ever since that crucial insight I thought of the book as half ghost story, half crime novel. After the more mystical mysterious magical happenings of Waking Dream and Bad Blood, I wanted to write a book where the supernatural elements ran in tandem with a physical action plot.

So in Ghost of a Chance, Eva and the ghost world exist on the other side of the looking glass to the Strattons and the murder investigation. The challenge for me was to have those two strands twining around each other while retaining certain points of mystery up until the very end.

I learnt a lot writing this book and it was tough work living up to the challenge I set myself. I think a lot of things about plot and action crystallized for me during the writing of this novel and I hope that readers will get the benefit of that. I'm excited to see what people think of the new book.