Saturday, 28 January 2012

Attractive teen heroes

(I am actually on a plane to Denver today so have scheduled this post in advance - on 2nd February Michelle Lovric will be my guest here on the publication day of her Talina in the Tower)

This post is inspired by the publication (2nd February in the UK) of the mass market paperback of my novel, David - only £6.99 full price. It's about the young man who posed for Michelangelo's iconic statue in Florence. Nothing is known about the model, or even if there was one, so I have invented him! Obviously he has to be spectacularly beautiful, so Gabriele is. But he must also appeal to the reader, which got me musing on what teenagers, especially female ones, find appealing in a hero.

I remember my English teacher at school being very fed up with my tutor group because we liked the “wrong” characters in our set books – Hal rather than Hotspur in Henry lV Part One and Edmund in preference to Edgar in King Lear, for example.

We seemed to prefer villains to heroes and shady characters to upright ones. Perhaps we were Emos before our time?

But isn’t that bad boy image what attracted women readers to Heathcliff and Mr Rochester? (It didn’t quite work for me because once I discovered Heathcliff had hanged Isabella’s dog, I went right off him).

I had a couple of older sisters so I was reading their library books when I was still pre-teen – authors no-one reads now, like Mazo de la Roche and Ursula Bloom. But the ones I did pick up and remember were novels by Dorothy Sayers and Georgette Heyer.

Lord Peter Wimsey would surely not appeal to many teenage girls today, with his monocle and his flaxen hair like Andrew Aguecheek’s, all smoothed down – probably with brilliantine – and his vacant aristocratic manner?

But it was all a front, you see for a brilliant mind and when he fell in love with Harriet Vane, he said incredibly sexy-sounding things to her in French, like “tu m’enivres.” (I knew the text of Busman’s Honeymoon by heart I had read it so often).

And in Georgette Heyer’s Devils’ Cub I found the hero of my dreams, the dark and dashing Dominic, Marquis de Vidal. I loved that book so much that as soon as I finished it I had to start reading it all over again, because I could not bear to leave its world.

Later, when I discovered Jane Austen at school I much preferred Mr Knightley to Mr Darcy, Henry Tilney to Edward Ferrars – I liked the men who kept their women from the excesses of their own foolishness, who were strong and kind but capable of issuing a good telling-off.

I suppose if there had been literature aimed at teenage girls in my youth, as there is in abundance today, I might have fallen for the sexy vampires and devoted werewolves, the broken angels and redeemable demons. But I was spared them.

In recent online surveys about crushes in YA fiction, the two Twilight Alpha males, Edward and Jacob, vampire and werewolf respectively come out top but with Peeta from The Hunger Ganes giving them a good run. And there are many fans of the Harry Potter characters, especially the Weasley brothers and even Draco Malfoy (though his father Lucius has almost as many fans). I think these choices must be influenced by casting in the films – those marmalade-cat twins and Jason Isaacs. But I can’t take them seriously as crushes myself.

My teen heroes were all in adult books when I was a teen myself but now that I read and review a lot of Young Adult (YA) Fiction and write it too, I have developed a sophisticated taste in hot young men all over again,

Not for me the ones whose rippling six packs are described in loving detail by their over-heated authors (always female) who are as smitten by their own heroes as ever plain and dumpy Dorothy Sayers was bowled over by her pale blond Lord Peter.

(My own most-admired creation of Lucien/Luciano in Stravaganza is hardly described physically at all. He has dark curly hair and a nice smile; that’s about it. Yet fourteen-year-old girls love him.)

I think I still like them a bit angsty and tortured; I don’t even mind if they look a bit girly, as long as they are strong-minded. (Always preferred Geeks to Jocks).

So here’s my list of the hottest heroes in books read by teens, whether intended for them or not (in no particular order):

1. Howl in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Conceited, petulant, arrogant, immature, Howl nevertheless steals every scene he appears in. It helps that he’s a wizard and that the sorely-missed Diana Wynne Jones was something of a witch, making wickedly funny scenes out of Howl’s many discomfitures at the hands of heroine Sophie.

2. Per Sterkarm in The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price. It’s pronounced “stark-arm” and is the name of a family of 16th century border bandits. Per is the only and most beloved son, whose pretty face gets him the nickname of “the May” or maid. But he’s a useful man in a battle, a lusty lover and one who inspires devotion in everyone from his father, to his hounds, to the 21st century time-traveller Andrea.

3. Seth McGregor in Firebrand and its sequels by Gillian Philip. If I  tell you Seth is a fairy, don’t run away with the wrong idea. He is one of the Sithe, both a sixteen-year-old and someone who has lived four or five hundred years. Sexy, violent and devoted to his half-brother, Seth is hero to make the heart beat faster – or to break it.

4. MCC Berkshire is the extraordinary hero of Geraldine McCaughrean’s extraordinary A Pack of Lies. It won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize over twenty years ago. MCC has a passion for cricket, second-hand books and is a mesmerising storyteller. My kind of guy. He gets under the skin of Ailsa Povey but what happens in the end is much too good to give away.

5. Sorensen Carlisle in The Changeover by Margaret Mahy. One of my all time favourite YA novels, it’s subtitled “a supernatural romance” – and it came out in 1984! Sorensen (Sorry, as the heroine, Laura Chant calls him) is a witch, living with his mother and grandmother. He wears a black caftan at home and antique rings and has silver eyes. Eat your heart out Edward Cullen!

6. Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Long before Viggo Mortensen did his turn for Peter Jackson as the stubbly ranger who was a king in waiting, he was my hero. He had all those names, for one thing – Strider, Elessar Elfstone and so on. It was a bit of a shock to discover he was eighty-six; I don’t think my teenage crush quite recovered from that. But there was always Legolas (though he was seven thousand years old) and Elrond in the elf department and lovely Faramir, the human hero.

7. Icarus Ocean Tompkins in Annie Dalton’s Out of the Ordinary. A flute-playing busker with a beautiful but “unreliable” smile. He got his names from his parents in their hippy phase. We don’t meet him till about 80 pages in but from then on he helps Molly Gurney save her mute foster brother from an evil Magus.

8. Fox (David Stone) in Exodus, Zenith and Aurora by Julie Bertagna. In a drowned world of the future, Fox is the rebel grandson of the man who has founded the city of New Mungo. We don’t know a great deal about what he looks like but he’s the Han Solo and Luke Skywalker of his world rolled into one and his love story with the heroine Mara Bell, is more than poignant.

9. Leonidas in Halo by Zizou Corder. OK, he’s a Spartan at the time of Pericles, so not the most up to date of heroes and he practises the cruel military arts he’s been taught in the Spartan army. But he keeps saving Halo’s life and eventually she saves his. What could be more romantic?

10. Alistair Windlass in Castle of Shadows and City of Thieves by Ellen Renner. This one shouldn’t be an attractive hero at all. For a start, he’s not a teenager but one of the adults – he is Prime Minister even! And morally, he’s as suspect as Zaphod Beeblebrox, calculating and sinister. BUT there is something very beguiling about him.

So how about you? Tell me your favourite YA attractive heroes and maybe we'll get enough suggestions for a poll!

Saturday, 21 January 2012


I've been busy preparing PowerPoints for my trip to Denver in a week's time and one of the talks I'm giving at the teachers' conference for the Colorado Council of the International Reading Association (CCIRA) is about picture books and retellings. I discovered I'd written and published 24 of the former (one of them a re-telling) and 14 of the latter (not counting the one that's a picture book).

Here are some of them:
The stories of King Arthur told from the point of view of the women: Guinevere, Igrayne, the Lady of the Lake, Morgan and so on. I loved writing this. The stylish pictures are by Christina Balit and it was published by Frances Lincoln.

This was the first of two collections of myths and legends from all round the world, illustrated by my friend Jane Ray and published by Orion. The other was Sun, Moon and Stars and they were both gorgeous books to work on. Jane and I had several meetings where we made heaps of ideas, images, stories, cuttings and then I had a first stab at the text and Jane came up with her stunning pictures. Then we modified the text for any changes the artwork had suggested might be improvements. This one won a prize: The Primary English Award.

This was a Frances Lincoln book too, a collection of animal stories from around
the world. The fabulous illustrations were by Jan Ormerod. I hadn't seen her animal paintings before we started the collaboration and was blown away by her lions and tigers, her pelican and gold and pink fish and her mud-spattered Native American hero and his pony.

It's always a thrill when the artwork comes in on an illustrated book and especially when it's a re-telling, because you are both re-interpreting a story that preferably is already known to you.

Though when I met Julie Downing, the American artist for A First Bible Story Book (Dorling Kindersley) she told me that the stories were all new to her, apart from the very well-known ones, like Adam and Eve and Noah's Ark. And that's a very good reason for re-telling any story, if it's fading from general knowledge. (After I met Julie in San Francisco, she told a friend "I had coffee with the person who wrote the Bible - and it was a woman!")

So how do you re-tell a story as well known as Cinderella? I've done it twice.
The first was in this Dorling Kindersley collection of Fairy Tales, illustrated
by Julie again. I had very few words, because it had such a lot of pictures
and the typeface was large. But it covered all the basic elements and got the job done.

The second version, written almost in parallel, for the Macmillan Treasury of Nursery Stories, gave me far longer to expand on how nasty the sisters were and how magical the transformations wrought by the Fairy Godmother. The delightful pictures were by Anna Currey, whom I met for the first time only last month, years after we did the book.

So what shall I tell my audience about re-tellings next week? I isolated four vital components of a re-telling:

• First, and perhaps, most important, you must actually LIKE the stories you are re-interpreting for a new generation of readers.
• Second, you can't change the basic plot. Cinderella has to marry the Prince. If she doesn't, that's not a re-telling but a whole different ball-game (in which I am also interested!)
• Third, while keeping the basic plot, the re-teller needs also to re-imagine the story, so it sounds as if they've just made it up.
• Fourth, give your sources. It might not matter to the child reader/listener but it shows you have gone back to the original and any interested adult will be able to see what you have added or taken away.

Just last week I was asked to do another re-telling. It isn't definite yet, but it's a story I have always loved and there is a set of illustrations already waiting. But I won't be writing glorified captions; I will be putting myself into it, giving it a few touches that can make it my own. And yes, I've already re-told it a couple of times!

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Dickens on the Box

OK, I did warn you there might be rather a lot about Dickens this year! This is Pip (Philip Pirrip) in his latest incarnation, Douglas Booth, in the recent BBC adaptation of Great Expectations. Too pretty, do I hear you say? A lot of people thought so, by which I mean people of my acquaintance, both in reality and in those parallel versions of it on Facebook and Twitter.

In fact, someone on Facebook was un-gallant enough to ask "Should Pip be so much prettier than Estella?", which was actually a fair question in the circumstances, since an unaccountably plain young woman had been chosen for that role.

And casting for Dickens is so much about looks. I had worried that Gillian Anderson was far too
beautiful to be Miss Havisham but actually found her performance quite wonderful. I hope she wins a Bafta.

But then, although I don't remember much about the old black and white film, I do carry memories of the equally marvellous Martita Hunt. Not that she wasn't beautiful too in her way but it was closer to the feeling that the book gave me of the decaying and derelict jilted bride. Though how much of that was costume and sets, it's hard to say.

I mean, look at that chandelier! Woman, cake and light fitting are as one. Apart from the actors' looks, I found several things to admire and enjoy in this adaptation and it did well by one of my favourite characters, Joe Gargery. It got me thinking for this post about my favourite Dickens' novels too.

One of them is his last, the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood and by great good fortune, this was also adapted by TV, in two installments last week.

I have on my shelves a "complete Edwin Drood" with an ending written by the late great Leon Garfield, which I doubt could be surpassed. The Gwyneth Hughes version for TV made so many changes that I feel I really must read the book again to see how much of it was justified by the portion Dickens had written before death prevented his completing it in 1870.

Here, as always, it seems really to be the mystery of John Jasper, played in this version by a suitably brooding Matthew Rhys. But the minor characters of Mr Grewgious (Alun Armstrong), Canon Crisparkle (Rory Kinnear) and his mother (Julia Mackenzie) were all beautifully rounded out.

So, my favourite Dickens novels are:
David Copperfield
Great Expectations
Little Dorrit
Dombey and Son
Our Mutual Friend
Edwin Drood

And my favourite characters:
Joe Gargery
Dick Swiveller (The Old Curiosity Shop)
Betsy Trotwood (David Copperfield)
Mr Twemlow (Our Mutual Friend)
Mr Wemmick (Great Expectations)
Mrs Plornish (Little Dorrit)
Flora Finching (Little Dorrit)

What are your favourite books and characters of Dickens? And what are your favourite film and TV adaptations?

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Sherlock vs. Holmes

I wasn't a huge fan, though I read them all as a kid. I think the character is better than any of the stories he appears in. You might think this would make me a purist about portrayals of the Great Detective, but I'm not.

I liked the Jeremy Brett interpretation on the TV (much later I learned that my father-in-law-to-be had been script editor for that series). I liked Robert Stephens in the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I enjoyed the late Michael Williams on the radio (even though a dog was addressed as "Cerebos" - so you had to take it with a pinch of salt). I am too young for Basil Rathbone

I watched the first Guy Ritchie movie on DVD at a friend's home in Venice and QUITE enjoyed it but couldn't help wondering why you would take a detective best known for his cerebral (Cereboral?) skills and change him into an all-action hero.

But the reinterpretation I've liked best, nay, LOVED, is Benedict Cumberbatch in Stephen Moffat's and Mark Gatiss's television Sherlock.

Yes, the Chinaman episode in Series one was c**p, yes, A Scandal in Belgravia was a bit sex-stereotyped and yes, Moriarty sounds like Graham Norton and looks as frightening as an animated haddock. But it really is fresh as well as funny, smart as well as sexy, and it has the wonderful Una Stubbs turning Mrs Hudson into a real character, in spite of Conan's Doyle's unpromising creation.

And they're right "brainy is the new sexy." Did you SEE BC in Starter for Ten? The transformation is astounding. You can keep your dishevelled, stubbly, quick-to-punch Robert Downey Jr. (and many of you will want to). He may have his disreputable charm but he just isn't Sherlock Holmes.

And why set it in period if you think the Savoy would have let in said stubbly, bruised and cut, tie-less diner?

BC on the other hand really is credible as the "high functioning sociopath" a combination of autistic savant and 21st century geek.

I've now seen two episodes and really enjoyed them both, even though they are getting a bit self-referential with all the "cheekbones" stuff and the endless harping on about Holmes and Watson aren't in a gay relationship.

But people I love and respect have not liked them at all.

Where do you stand on the Moffatt/Gatiss vs Ritchie issue? Or Cumberbatch/Downey Jr one? (Or even Freeman/Law if you like)

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Christmas haul

Books do furnish a room, don't they? (Except when they are on a Kindle, but that's another blog post). This was what I got for Christmas (and not all my presents were books, so I am a lucky girl).

BOTH new biographies of Dickens, which will be appropriately read this bi-centenary year. Two beautifully-produced titles - The Dud Avocado and A Boy at the Hogarth Press (Have to share this one with husband).

Also shared and and my proudest book moment yet, Anne Rooney's The Story of Physics, IN WHICH I GET AN ACKNOWLEDGMENT! Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. An acknowledgment in a Physics book, when I have not had one Physics lesson in my life. Admittedly it was more for general encouragement than science but I glow with pride every time I look at it. And of course I shall read it and then know some Physics.

I also have the letters of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who wrote The Leopard (IL Gattopardo) one of my favourite books and made into a pretty decent film too.

The seventh is Girl Reading, a very clever find by husband, in which the first chapter is about Simone Martini's Annunciation, my favourite painting in the world.

I'll report back as I read them and certainly have already good material for another booky year. But first I must finish reading Bill Bryson's wonderful At Home, about the history of domestic houses, rooms and household management, which immensely more interesting even than it sounds. About to read 34 pages on the fuse box!

Happy New Year to you all and good reading.