Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Close your Pretty Eyes by Sally Nicholls - a review

When Jane Austen said she had written a heroine that no-one but herself would much like, she meant not Fanny Price, as I had misremembered, but Emma Woodhouse. I thought about this assessment when I read Sally Nicholls' Close Your Pretty Eyes, because she has taken the bold step of creating a protagonist-narrator who practically begs you not to like her.

Olivia has lived in sixteen homes since the age of five and she warns you that she is a monster and a witch and that her mother doesn't love her on the first page of the book. On the next page she admits that she tells lies: Olivia is the very definition of an unreliable narrator.

She tells her history in reverse - like Stuart, a Life backwards - starting with the new foster home she has at age eleven, with Jim Ivey and his family and working back to her birth mother who didn't love her. And the Iveys will not be her last home even within the book.

Olivia is the foster child from hell: she puts each new placement to the test by behaving as badly as she possibly can, as if forcing each foster parent (and one children's home) to fulfill her belief that she is unlovable and chuck her out.

But she has had some placements from hell too, from the terrifying abusive Violet to the bland "mummy and daddy" who adopted Olivia's younger sister Hayley but didn't want Olivia herself. There are some blood-curdling stories here, all of which combine to confirm Olivia's belief that "something went wrong when I was born."

It looks as if she might have a chance with Jim Ivey, who has custody of his own two children, Daniel and Harriet, and already fosters a teenager with a baby. They live in an old farmhouse, low and long, and Olivia soon finds out that it used to be home to a notorious criminal.

Amelia Dyer was a Victorian baby farmer, convicted and hanged for the murder of hundreds of her charges - and Olivia can see her. She can hear babies crying too and confuses the sound with the crying of Maisy, the fostered teenager's baby. Gradually the ghost of Amelia comes to dominate Olivia's life at the Iveys and leads her to do the worse thing yet in a foster placement.

Sally Nicholls signing copies at the launch of Close Your Pretty Eyes

If you thought Tracy Beaker was pushing the boundaries, read Close Your Pretty Eyes. The reader's heart breaks to see Olivia deliberately destroying every chance of a loving family life, time after time, because she just can't believe that anyone really wants her.

I found the ghost story almost an irrelevance. Olivia's story would have pulled me in just on its own without the supernatural element. But it is nevertheless terrifying.

And the ending, when Olivia is in her sixteenth home and writes to Jim Ivey asking him to forgive her and take her back, is magnificent. I won't spoil what Sally Nicholls does with it. In the five years since she won the Waterstones' Prize with her début, Ways to Live Forever, Saly nicholls has continued to surprise and enthrall.

Sally Nicholls' titles
(The photos are by Carolyn Hunter)

Monday, 11 November 2013

Choose your favourite children's book

You have only till 15th November - this Friday! - to vote on your favourite childrens' book from the Booktrust list of 100 books to read before you are 14.

So do click on the link above and cast your vote in each category. (I do have a book hiding on the list but am not asking you to vote for me - it's just something to stimulate discussion with children in your family or classroom).

I put up my own favourites in a few blog posts over the last few weeks and some of those make the Booktrust list too.

So, it's got me thinking about what makes a book a favourite and my not very original conclusion is that it has a lot to do with its being the right book at the right time. I'm sure we've all had the experience of being put off a book by reading it when we weren't the right age to appreciate it. But then reading it again years later we suddenly discover what it was all about.

A book by Roald Dahl that I do like!

There are some books you really do need to read as a child and don't enjoy as an adult. I think if I had been a child when Roald Dahl was writing I would like his books much more than I actually do. And - prepare to recoil in amazement - I am not a big Narnia fan for the same reason. Not that they weren't available when I was a child but I think I read only The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and maybe The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I read them all when reviewing the first recent film of TLTWatW and was struck, as an adult reader by the poor plotting, loose ends and many infelicities in the writing. I know this will be heresy to all those who fell in love with Aslan with they were little and for whom the whole Narnia saga is bathed in his magnificent tawny aura. I understand but just can't share.

I have deliberately chosen two writers who are no longer with us because there are some current books hugely popular with young readers that leave me cold and it would be terribly unfair to subject living writers to my just not really engaging with them. Having a favourite is a very personal thing.

What it really points up is the necessity to have a really wide choice of books available at every age and stage of childhood in the hope that something will have that personal appeal. With school and class and public libraries all dwindling, that is getting harder.

On the other hand, I heard today that 25,000 children's books (including e-books, self-published and so on) in 2012. So the variety is there but how on earth is a parent or teacher to choose?

This is where lists like the Booktrust one can step in and pick out the titles most likely to be a hit with a young reader. We can all quibble with any list. The "where is X?" and "surely not Y?" and fun games to play - but only if you know a lot about books already.

So do get your children or class of children to cast their votes. It gets people talking about books and introduces them to titles they might not know.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

My very own little witch

Artwork by Rhiannon Lassiter and Dom Camus
Once upon a time I had a little girl who loved stories. (And then I had two more but this post is not about them, even though daughter number two was due on Hallowe'en).

And we had a dressing up box - a wooden one - that now resides in the first daughter's grown up living room. For one of the many things they had in common with their mother was a love of dressing up and pretending to be someone else. Once they went as rabbits to a summer party in black leotards with cotton wool ball scuts and carrots hanging round their necks on strings. (There might have been some attempt at ears too).

Another time we were all invited to a Walker books Hallowe'en party and everyone dressed up. I seem to recall my long-suffering husband going as Count Dracula in a black velvet cloak and plastic fangs. Rhiannon Lassiter - for it is she - went as a witch and won a prize.

Clearly this was a formative experience.

It's lovely for a writer to have another writer in the family; it makes for quite different conversations. About characters and plots and incidents. And we get to read each other's books before they are published, which is a big bonus.

So I can tell you that Rhiannon's Little Witches: Bewitched is a brilliant book for younger children. You may associate her with YA novels like Hex, Bad Blood and Ghost of a Chance, but she has  written for younger children already, with Superzeroes and Superzeroes on Planet X, illustrated by Tony Ross.

One of the many qualifications Rhiannon has for performing magic, as well as her name, is the possession of an all black cat. Here they both are, above. So it will be no surprise that the Little Witches of her first e-book also acquire a familiar of this traditional form. Only in his case he is sometimes a boy.

But I am getting ahead of myself. There are five stories in Little Witches: Bewitched, with the promise of more to come. The first story, Little Witches and the Trick-or-Treat Trick, tells how Verity and Dulcie both become genuine witches after a trick-or-treating outing, a dodgy shopkeeper in Camden and some delicious emerald green sweets. It's Hallowe'en - the one night when children can accept sweets from strangers.

Verity and Dulcie meet, with their sisters and au pair respectively, on the same doorstep; both are dressed as witches and they become instant friends.  In the second story, Little Witches and the Wandering Shop, when the spells of the old woman with the green sweets have become rather inconvenient in the way they do in E. Nesbit's Five Children and It, the girls try to find again the shop where it all went wrong, only to find it is no longer there.

Their further adventures have them capturing a ghost in Dulcie's grandfather's very grand stately home, acquiring the cat that is sometimes a boy and travelling back in time to meet a very famous playwright and a surprising third witch.

Pumpkin courtesy of Sara Wallcraft

It's a charming read , full of vivid characters, like Dulcie's Eastern European au pair, the ghost of Audley - a sixteenth century boy murdered by a family member - and Tom, the cat-boy, whose hobbies are stealing things and fish. (The description of his corrugated iron shack and its contents reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones).

The book is available for kindle at the normal price of £5 but, just for Hallowe'en  you can snap it up at the bargain price of just £1.53.That's 70% off the usual price.

And is it nepotism to write about it here and tell you how brlliant it is? Of course. But I really had no choice. You see my daughter put me under a powerful spell.

Rhiannon's website

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

20 favourite YA titles

And here are are my "best" novels for teenagers, again randomly ordered.

 • Robin McKinley Spindle's End

The re-telling of traditional fairy tales in a form attractive to today's teens is quite common now but  this is the one I like best. Quirky, sexy and mysterious.

• Gillian Philip Firebrand

This is the first in the Rebel Angels quartet, three-quarters of the way through as I write. This introduced us to Seth McGregor, definitely not anyone's definition of a fairy. He is one of the Sidhe, for all that and a wonderful creation.

• Linda Aronson Kelp

This funny novel by Linda Aronson, an English author based in Australia , has the irresistible sub-title "A story of love, seaweed and Rupert Murdoch."

• Joan Bauer Squashed

Another funny book - and I find few funny books actually humorous - about an usual teenage girl who grows squashes.

• Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle

I don't know if this was actually written for teens but it is a perfect book to give to a girl of thirteen. I was about a year older when I first read it and suffering from the devoted attentions of a male, which I couldn't reciprocate, so identified with Cassandra. And what self-respecting teenage girl doesn't want to live in a castle?

• Judith Kerr Out of the Hitler Time

This is a bind-up of the trilogy that begins with When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Actually it os the second novel - originally called The Other Way Around - which is my favourite.

• John Green Looking for Alaska

I "discovered" John Green at the same time as I found Neil Shusterman, as I mentioned in my post about junior novels. I like this one and Paper Towns better than the recent and notorious The Fault in our Stars. What I like best is the voice he captures so well in each novel.

• Malorie Blackman Noughts and Crosses

A brilliant USP - that it is Black people who have the upper hand in society - brilliantly and bleakly  achieved.

• Diana Wynne Jones Fire and Hemlock

This is probably still my favourite Diana Wynne Jones, though I could have chosen Archer's Goon or A Tale of Time City or Howl's Moving Castle. What a great loss to YA literature.

• Margaret Mahy The Changeover

Another great loss recently was this versatile New Zealander. I could have chosen The Tricksters but Sorenson Carlisle still has my heart so it has to be this one.

• J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Reading for children? Adults? Teenagers? I read them when I was nine and ten respectively, then every year till I was eighteen and realised they were not very well written. Read them to my daughters at family reading. Re-read them after every film and in spite of all the reservations about women, the representation of evil etc. etc. the world-building and action are superb.

• Susan Price The Sterkarm Handshake

When this was recommended to me by Francesca Simon I thought it was the strangest and ugliest title I had ever heard. But she was right: I loved it! The sequel is The Sterkarm Kiss and I know that Susan price has written the third - I can't wait to read it. An action adventure, with strong moral Prime Directive undertones and a sexy hero in Per Sterkarm.

• Katherine Roberts I am the Great Horse

The story of Alexander the Great told from the point of view of his horse - what a USP! And brilliantly executed. The end had me in tears every time.

• Rosemary Sutcliff Sword at Sunset

This is the historical novel about what the actual Arthur of Britain might have been like. And Guinevere. And her lover, who is not that latecomer Sir Launcelot. I first read it years ago and continue to remember whole scenes and dialogues.

• Geraldine McCaughrean A Pack of Lies

Geraldine is another author whose books made me spoilt for choice. She writes something different every time, which is particularly pleasing. This is one of the early ones and the ending is incredibly daring and head-spinning.

• Jan Mark They do Things Differently There

It is a pity than Jan Mark is not remembered more widely now. Her books were intelligent, varied and always a pleasure to read. This one's title is unfortunate and doesn't convey the glorious content. Two friends live in a small town where nothing ever happens. They re-name it Stalemate (which is what the book should have been called) and invent all sorts of outrageous happenings, characters and industries. Just where does all that fat from liposuction go? I love this novel because it's how I tend to look at the world. 

• Annie Dalton Out of the Ordinary

This was her first book, followed by The Alpha Box and The Night Maze, which I alos might have chosen. Sadly for me, Annie Dalton no longer writes for teens. I loved the voice of all of them.

• Anne Fine The Book of the Banshee

Another versatile writer but I particularly liked this one about a bolshie teenage girl.

• Celia Rees Witch Child

This became an instant classic and was followed by Sorceress, the second half of the story. It was reminiscent to me of Monica Furlong's Wise Child, a much older book, but I think that is coincidence. The book's jacket was one of the first featuring a full face teenage girl but, unlike many later ones, the model did look as if she could have belonged in the period written about. The first of Celia Rees's historical novels.

• Julie Bertagna Exodus

The first of a trilogy about a drowned future, featuring the strong heroine Mara and her involvement with resistance leader Fox.

You will notice lots of omissions on this list as on the others. There are books that people rave about that I dislike - such as The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak - and others that I simply haven't read - like The Hunger Games.

But feel free to add some of your favourites.

20 favourite books for Juniors

Continuing with my list of favourite titles, here is one for those who have graduated on to "chapter books". (They are also good for reading aloud). So, in no particular order:

• Lewis Carroll Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there

One of the very few children's books I read as an adult, having missed it as a child, and actually loved. Who can resist the White Knight, for example? 

• E. Nesbit Five Children and It

The Psammead (the "It" of the title) is one of literature's great creations. I desperately wanted to write a sequel to this called Five Grandchildren and It but Helen Cresswell got there first - with the sequel, I mean; she didn't use that idea.

• Philippa Pearce Tom's Midnight Garden

This is one of those perfect books that show the rest of us how it's done. The clock striking thirteen, the garden that comes and goes, the adventures with Hattie and the eventual discovery of her identity - just beautiful!

• Catherine Storr Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf

We had a tape of these stories, read by Derek Edwards, which was a huge favourite with the children on car journeys.The wolf like poetry to be "useful", e.g.

Monday's child is fairly tough,
Tuesday's child is tender enough,
Wednesday's child is good to fry,
Thursday's child is best in pie.
Friday's child makes good meat roll,
Saturday's child is casserole,
But the child that is born on the Sabbath day,
Is delicious when eaten any way.

• Alan Garner Elidor

Unlike most writers I am not a huge Alan Garner fan but I think Elidor is his best novel and a wonderful introduction to the Grail legends.

• Louis Sachar Holes

Another perfect book. Many contemporary writers for children think that a plot is a series of unrelated events, like beads on a necklace. But in this book, Sachar produces a far more elegant structure, with present and past woven together in the most satisfying way.

• Frank Cottrell Boyce Cosmic

This is almost as perfect! I haven't read Millions but this book and his adult TV play about Auschwitz have convinced me that Cottrell Boyce is a most versatile genius.

• Norton Juster The Phantom Tollbooth

This has recently been re-issued and well deserves to be read by a new generation. Full of excellent verbal jokes and exuberant invention.

• Ted Hughes The Iron Man

This book became a classic the minute it was published. Hughes found just the right way to create a story that felt as if it had always existed.

• Rudyard Kipling Just-so Stories

These are indestructible. We loved them ourselves, read them to our daughters, who loved them too and gave now given them to our young nephews. My favourite is The Beginning of the Armadilloes, with the young painted jaguar whose pet name with his mother was Doffles, but all are full of gems. Now that I am married to a half "Parsee-man" I can fully appreciate the line in How the Rhinoceros got his Skin: "Them that takes cakes what the Parsee-man bakes makes dreadful mistakes."

• Dodie Smith 101 Dalmatians

Most people will know this from films - the Disney cartoon or the very convincing live action movie, with Glenn Close as Cruella de Ville. What a brilliant USP! The kind of thing we all long to come up with.

• Mary Norton The Borrowers

As was this. The very names of the Borrowers family - Homily, Pod, Arietty - are borrowed or half-understood, like the bits and pieces they take from the human world to furnish their domestic lives.

• Robert O'Brien Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh

Does anyone read this now? And yet it was such an important book when I first started as a critic of children's literature in the 1970s. Like Russell Hoban's The Mouse and his Child, an unusual and enduring junior novel.

• Gene Kemp The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler

This one isn't recent either but the shock of discovery about the central character's identity at the very end stays with me.

• Patrick Ness A Monster Calls

A very recent book and a complete masterpiece, which won both the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals in the same year. It was Patrick Ness's re-imagination of an idea and notes left by Siobhan Dowd when she was dying and magnificently realised.

• Neil Shusterman Antsy Does Time

Shusterman is an American writer I discovered on a trip to the International Reading Association Congress in Atlanta, where he was present with another great discovery, John Green. (The rest of the world is catching up with John Green now but really, try Neil Shusterman).  This book and The Schwa was Here are junior titles but he is equally good at YA fiction.

• J.R.R. Tolkien The Hobbit

I didn't read this till after I knew The Lord of the Rings trilogy really well. Structurally it leaves a lot to be desired and the Peter Jackson films aren't helping with that. But the central ideas are great and still appeal.

• Jeff Brown Flat Stanley

The child who has a strange body change - as in The Shrinking of Treehorn or Bill's New Frock - are always winners and this one about a boy who loses dimension and depth is no exception.

• Eva Ibbotson A Dog and his Boy

The last book from a great writer, it sums up everything about a child's relationship with with beloved animals, while remaining skilfully unsentimental.

• Terry Pratchett Wee Free Men

The first of Pratchett's books about the Nac Mac Feegle, impossibly tiny but fierce blue men, who owe a lot to the Picts. Their favourite swear words are "Crivens!" and "Big Jobs!" And a great introduction to the Discworld.

So - those are my twenty. What are yours?

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Not those b****y rules again!

In honour and memory of Elmore Lenard, who died a couple of days ago, I am re-printing two posts from 2010:


Photo credit:MDCarchives


Well it was bound to provoke, wasn't it? Last Saturday's Guardian newspaper printed Elmore Leonard's already well known 10 rules and asked many other writers to provide their own, here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one

I've come across the Leonard rules before so don't understand how come they are just being released as a book here. And I can't honestly be bothered to find out why. I hate writing rules!

If they worked, then everyone who followed them would produce similarly successful books, wouldn't they?

Here are a few taken at random:

Margeret Atwood - take 2 pencils so you can write on a plane because "pens leak" - honestly, I ask you! Did she get to be the great writer she is by eschewing biros? I don't think so.

Roddy Doyle - do not search amazon.co.uk for the book you haven't written yet. Is the man mad?

Richard Ford - don't have children. Back to the old Enemies of Promise premise, I see. How many male writers look after their own children?

P. D. James Increase your word power. This from a woman who misuses "fortuitous" in almost every novel.

Dip in almost anywhere and you will find such dross - this really is just filling column inches.

Tips, I can take. I've written some myself on www.maryhoffman.co.uk because so many teenage writers asked for them and it saves repeating myself (I think I have 10 rules for writing fantasy there but done tongue in cheek - do not let your plot hinge on a birthmark, for example)

Hints are good. I love hearing about the way writers work. I loved it when the Guardian ran those pictures and descriptions of writers' rooms.

Advice? Good when asked for and given by someone one respects.

But rules? Nah. Rules schmules.

10 things that help me write

I've gone on thinking about those rules and think they would have been more useful if expressed as above. Here are mine:

1. Someone to read fiction aloud to, chapter by chapter, as I write it. In my case it's my husband, so he is very close at hand but any trusted friend would do.

2. Proximity to a kettle. My study is next to the kitchen, so it's very easy to make a mug of real black coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon (creature of habit)

3. An object that symbolises what I am writing about. It's not a fetish but a focus. Currently I'm writing a novel about Michelangelo's David and I don't have such an object. Must find one.

4. A supply of clicky-clicky biros that write black. Blue really disturbs me.I like Papermate flexigrip which I buy in sixes (though then they all run out at the same time)

5. A fast Internet connection.

6. A writers' group. I belong to "the other SAS" = Scattered Authors Society. We have a closed forum on which to let off steam, pass on news, give and receive sympathy for personal sadness, ask for and receive advice on many arcane topics. We also meet at least twice a year, some of us, and also have little local lunches from time to time. We never discuss ideas or "inspiration", hardly ever even technical writing matters but it's terrific just to know a group of people who don't have to have this insane way of life explained to them.

7. A subscription to the London Library.

8. Some close writer friends, a smaller group than the SAS, with whom I can talk career strategies, marketing etc. You know who you are.

9. A good night's sleep.

10. a regular supply of fiction both YA and adult, to read. I'm not at all afraid of "being influenced" as some tyro writers say. If you don't read you can't write. Oooh, I think no. 10 is actually a rule!

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Twenty best picture books

I was recently asked to compile a list of what I thought were the 20 best picture books for children. Then this changed to 20 best books for children, whatever the format or age group. Finally a list of the 50 best children's books ever was published in a national newspaper, put together from suggestions by a panel of children's writers not including your Maven, in spite of her having been asked and providing the list to meet the deadline.

So in the spirit of waste not, want not and let's all be Green and aware of the value of recycling, I am going to put my lists up here for discussion. First, the 20 best picture books, not ranked in order as I was asked to do by said national newspaper. And of course I can annotate my choices here because it's my blog.

I haven't chosen the obvious Where the Wild Things Are or The Very Hungry Caterpillar; you might find some of my choices equally obvious but there are also some rarities here.

• The Tiger who came to Tea by Judith Kerr

This will probably be on most people's list of favourites. In this first of her many picture books, Judith Kerr introduces children perfectly to magical realism. Actually I take that back - they know about it already. A tiger who eats Sophie and her mother out of house and home is to be catered for in future by a large tin of "Tiger Food" but as we know, he never does return.

• Not now, Bernard by David McKee

A little boy tries to point out  to his parents that there is a monster in the garden who wants to eat him but they are just too busy to listen and the inevitable happens. Not for children of a nervous disposition but a salutary lesson for parents.

• Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell and Lilian Hoban

The whole series off Frances the Badger Books is divine but if I had to choose just one it would probably have to be this (this is worse than Desert Island Discs). Frances refuses to eat anything but bread and jam so in a cunning plan her parents stop offering her anything else. The humour is as dry as a martini.

• The Man whose Mother was a Pirate by Margaret Mahy and Margaret Chamberlain

I'm a huge Margaret Mahy fan and she will show up again in my list of 20 best YA novels. Evidently she had a lot of good fairies at her Christening since she wrote equally wonderful picture books, junior fiction, teenage novels and even an acceptable reading scheme. The dull little clerk whose large, boisterous mother shows him a life that is more fun at sea is one of our family favourites.

• Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett

There are only four words in this fabulous book and you have now read them all. A perfect first picture book for a baby.

 • Each, Peach, Pear, Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

This is pretty darn perfect too. The last page: "I spy .....everyone!" gives the authentic backbone shiver.

• The Wolves in the Wall by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Plenty of shivers here too! The moment when then Wolves come out of the Walls as has been threatened throughout makes it the modern day heir to Not now, Bernard.

• Hairy McClary from Donaldson's Dairy by Lynley Dodd

You could have any one of this fabulous series featuring the wonderful cast of dogs, including Schnitzel von Krumm (with the very low tum). The rhyme is as effortless as the sense of fun.

• My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes by Eve Sutton

There are some fairly irresistible rhymes here too: "The cat from Norway got stuck in the doorway," for example.

• Once There were Giants by Penny Dale

Hardly anyone knows this but it's one of my favourite picture books, showing so economically and poignantly, how babies become the grown-ups to the next generation.

• Where's my Teddy? by Jez Allborough

I have often used this with students as an example of the perfect picture book text.

• Mister Magnolia by Quentin Blake

"Mister Magnolia has only one boot" - a situation that it takes the whole book to resolve, via the maddest list of all the things he does have that rhyme with boot. And then a parcel comes ....

• Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins

When I first got into children's books, this book was the classic text.  It first came out in 1968 and is still in print. Absolutely minimal text charts Rosie the hen's apparently uneventful walk across a farmyard, while the stylish and stylised orange, red and black pictures tell a more complicated story.

• Meg and Mog by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski

Another very reliable series, with the wonderfully dotty Meg the witch and Mog her familiar.

• The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

Such a simple idea, like all the great classics.

• The Great Fruit Gum Robbery by Russell Hoban and Colin McNaughton

This is one of four books that virtually no-one else knows about outside our family. Yet it has given us so many useful phrases: "heavy sticky" "cake beam" "tidying up the cheesecake" "slitherino squelcher."

• A Horse and a Hound, a Goat and a Gander by Alice and Martin Provenson

More useful phrases - and names - here! The Gander was called Evil Murdoch and fell in love with hub caps.

• Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr

I've sneaked another Judith Kerr title in here near the bottom so as not to seem greedy. This is the first of many Mog books by someone who really knows cats.

* Noisy Nora by Rosemary Wells

Nora decides, as so many "misunderstood" children do, to leave home. But no-one seems to notice. The last line is very satisfying. 

• Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems

A modern classic, where the ending is implied right there in the title. The kind of delicious inevitability that has children screaming with delight.

So how about all the ones I have left out? Give me your favourites below.

Saturday, 27 July 2013


In the Guardian today, Neil Gaiman said, "I think everything I've written with the exception of Ocean [at the end of the Lane] has a sequel I could start tomorrow." And it got me thinking.

pinguino k from North Hollywood, USA, 2007
There is a passion for sequels. I can't tell you how often fans have written to me asking for sequels to books whose story seems to me to have come to a definite end. And it can go on after an author is dead; just how many James Bond, Sherlock Holmes and Jane Austen spin-offs can there be? (Especially now you can just add zombies).

Another way, the more elegant to my mind, is to have a minor character from a book become the dominant one in another, as Paul Scott did with Booker-winning Staying On, after writing the Jewel in the Crown series. Susan Howatch made it the dominant feature of her Starbridge series of novels.

Giorgio Bassani's Romazo di Ferrara was five novellas linked in this way, of which the most famous is The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

Yet another method is to write a prequel, explaining something about the earlier life of one of a novel's characters : Philippa Gregory, whose The White Queen is currently being shown on British TV, is releasing The White Princess this summer, which is at least chronologically later, being about the White Queen's (Elizabeth Woodville's) daughter (Elizabeth of York). But the novels were written out of historical order.

3rd in the Cousins' War sequence but a prequel to The White Queen
Still, Shakespeare wrote Henry Vl (all three parts) and Richard lll before Richard ll, Henry lV (2 parts) and Henry V. Perhaps the groundlings shouted, "More! More!" and Henry Vll would have been a bit too close to home. (Even though he did probably later write Henry Vlll with John Fletcher).

How do you feel about sequels? Which novel would you most like to have one? My candidate is Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White.

Monday, 15 July 2013

What's in a name?

A famous name
A lot, apparently. Robert Galbraith's début crime novel, The Cuckoo's Calling, was published quietly on April 18th by Sphere and gained some enthusiastic reviews from fellow-practitioners Val McDiarmid, Mark Billingham and Peter James among others. Today it is Amazon's Number 1 Bestseller. Not because of word-of-mouth or Amazon reviews but because - you'd have to be living under a stone not to know this - "Robert Galbraith" is actually the pseudonym of J K Rowling.

Joanne Rowling published her first adult novel, A Casual Vacancy, last year with Little, Brown (of which Sphere is an imprint), under her own name  and received quite a lot of flak from reviewers. I don't in the least blame her for trying another route with her first crime novel. But did she? Cynical speculation is rife on the Net that the release of this information three months later was a calculated  marketing ploy.

I would like not to believe that of Rowling, towards whom I am generally well-disposed.

Still, this post is not about her but the thousands of extra readers who have bought Galbraith's book since the news broke. What is the mentality here? I haven't bought it myself because I don't want detective fiction in hardback or on my Kindle. but I might when it is paperbacked.

Not because it is by J K Rowling but because the reviews make it sound good and - here's the crucial bit - I hadn't seen any of these reviews until the author was outed.

Presumably the hundreds of thousands of new purchasers (and they are bound to rise before I can even put this post up) thought "Ooh, I love JK" or "I love Harry Potter" or even "I really enjoyed A Casual Vacancy"?

Once a certain number has been reached, the sales bonanza finds its own momentum.

What will happen in future ? Will the Cormoran Strike series be labelled "J.K.Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith"? The way that some books tell you they are "by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine"? (I buy all those).

What I find a bit odd is "Robert Galbraith's" biography on the Sphere site:

"Born in 1968, Robert Galbraith is married with two sons. After several years with the Royal Military Police, he was attached to the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for protagonist Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who have returned to the civilian world. 'Robert Galbraith' is a pseudonym."

Should it perhaps have added "This biography is a work of fiction"?

I'm interested that J K Rowling should have invented not just her pseudonym but a whole back story for him, as if he had been one of her characters.

I remember E.V. Lucas's anecdote about W.P.Ker; when told that William Sharp dressed up in women's clothes when writing "Fiona McLeod's" poems, Ker exclaimed, "the bitch!"

Do we feel deceived? What do you think?

Photo credit: Daniel Ogren

Friday, 5 July 2013

Private Lives

Opening Night at the Gielgud Theatre on Wednesday and your Maven was tirelessly there to see what a new production made of this 1930 classic. (Well, the audience has been described as "star-studded" but the reporter might possibly have meant Dominc West and Helena Bonham-Carter).

Noel Coward's hardy perennial opens with the most famous balcony scene since Romeo climbed up that creeper in Verona. Two honeymooning couples in Deauville have neighbouring bridal suites in a hotel with balconies overlooking the harbour and a yacht whose lights are reflected in the water. Out comes newlywed Sibyl to rhapsodise over the view, shortly followed by Elyot Chase, her new husband.

You get an extra frisson if you know that Toby Stephens, playing Elyot, actually is married to Anna-Louise Plowmam, playing Sibyl.  You can't help wondering what it does for their marriage to have Stephens yelling at her within minutes that he'd like to cut her head off with a meat-axe. Because Sibyl will keep talking about Elyot's first wife, Amanda.

When they go in to dress, it doesn't take long for the penny to drop that the "Mandy" the man on the next balcony calls out to admire the same view is that very Amanda. That Victor Prynne (Anthony Calf) completely misunderstands his new wife, with whom he is coincidentally honeymooning next to her ex, is apparent from that first moment.

The first act unfolds with a delicious inevitability in this wittiest of plays, incredibly written by Coward in three days (one for each act?). It's vital in any production that the two principals must be cast as equally as Antony and Cleopatra and that's certainly the case here. Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor as the sparring exes, whose passion immediately re-ignites across the flimsy barrier between balconies, are so much better-suited to each other than either of them is to their new, conventional spouse.

Anna Chancellor, seen here in Act Two, in particular seems made for the part - a perfect Amanda. Lithe as a panther, enviably graceful even when flinging herself across the stage in her silk pyjamas or dancing a parody of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring choreography to annoy Elyot, and elegant in palazzo pants and a cloche hat in her final escape scene.

I like my Elyots a tad taller and darker than Stephens (Alan Rickman was perfect in the role a decade ago, even though it was Lindsay Duncan's Amanda which won the prizes). But Toby Stephens has a nice line in subversive mugging asides.

Of course Victor wants to punch him when the new spouses catch up with the old ones who have scarpered to Amanda's flat in Paris. But the way that Anthony Calf carefully rolls up his tie after taking off his jacket for the affray is a perfect stuffy foil to Elyot's line about whether they are to have a battle or a conversation.

In fact both Calf and Plowman make a lot of their deliberately lesser roles. Again, the costumes do a lot: scratchy tweed for Victor and ridiculously fussy Ginger Rogers-type pink feathered gown for Sibyl, while Amanda outshines her in sculpted bottle green velvet.

The way that Victor takes "Brioche?" as an unspeakable insulting invitation brought the house down.
Even Sue Kelvin's French maid Louise, grumbling and snuffling through improvised comments on her employers' domestic habits, makes the most of a little.

Other bits of dialogue feel less comfortable to a 21st century audience. There's no doubting that Elyot's line about some women needing to be struck regularly "like gongs" is witty but it makes for awkward laughter now.

But mostly, the play is imperishable. This production, directed by Jonathan Kent, has transferred from Chichester for a summer run at the Gielgud. It is as English as a Pimms No.1 on a summer day and should be a big hit with both visitors and residents. Catch it while you can.

(Photos all courtesy of Gielgud Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, Old Vic Productions and APT Productions, poster credit Uli Weber)

Friday, 28 June 2013

The Tiger who Stayed Forever

HarperCollins have published this beautiful book as a tribute to Judith Kerr, who was ninety this month. It is an autobiography of a life shaped by art, family and a deep love of cats. But don't think that means Judith Kerr is a dear little old lady with a feline obsession. There is a razor-sharp intelligence at work in her clear-sighted analysis of the events of her life.

I was particularly touched by the way she wanted to put the record straight about the portrayal of her father in her novels, now known by the overall title of Out of the Hitler Time. It was a trilogy of fictionalised autobiography, whose first volume was called When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, now re-issued by HarperCollins in an anniversary edition.

But my favourite was always the second book, originally entitled The Other Way Round, in which  young Anna (Judith Kerr's first forename in Anna) experiences that most poignant of aspects of growing up, when the child becomes protective and caring of the parent. (It appears that she doesn't like the original title - which I think is perfect - and the book is now called Bombs on Aunt Dainty, which seems to me inappropriately Mitfordesque).

Anyway, in Creatures, Judith Kerr revisits what her father was doing during the war, after he had sensibly removed his whole family from Germany in the '30s. "I did not know that all this time my father, too, was battling to earn money for his family because he never spoke about it. I still did not know it when I wrote Bombs on Aunt Dainty in 1973, and I described my mother making all the efforts while my father, while writing beautiful words, remained fairly inactive. I now know this is totally wrong."

It is rather wonderful that she has had this opportunity to revise her family history and I'm sure if there is an afterlife Alfred Kerr is glowing. It's also another sign of what we learn as adults: that what we always believed to be true might have been quite different.

But this is not at all a sombre book, nor even an elegaic one, in spite of the many losses a ninety-year-old will inevitably have endured. Parents, a brother, her husband and many, many cats. What stands out to me is that she has been tremendously loved. Of her fifty-plus years of marriage to Tom Kneale (the television writer Nigel Kneale), she writes, "we had never run out of things to talk about." What better could be said of a long and happy union?

They had two children, the artist Tacy Kneale, who specialises in insect paintings, and the novelist, Matthew Kneale, whose The English Passengers won the Whitbread for 2000. (He now lives in Rome, which he decided he would do at age ten).

Writing and drawing - that's what the Kneale/Kerr household was all about: "What can you say about a life that consists of two people sitting in adjoining rooms for forty-odd years making marks on bits of paper?" Quite a lot as it turns out!

Of course, what we all know about Judith Kerr and what makes her an "NT" (which she would hate to be called as much as Judi Dench does, I'm sure) are her wonderful picture books.

The Tiger who came to Tea - and stayed forever in the hearts of generations of children - began, like so many successful tales, as a story to tell her children. It was only when they were both at school all day that Judith Kerr had enough time to turn it into a picture book. She took her idea and pictures to her husband's agent and there was a meeting at Collins Children's Blooks. The rest is history.

In this gorgeous book, The Tiger who came to Tea is reproduced in full. How many parents since 1968 have been grateful to those 32 pages? Our three girls were brought up on them ten years and more later and we have given this book to many new parents.

It is amusing to hear that the Collins editors wanted the spread in which the tiger drinks all the water from the tap removed. "Rather unrealistic," they said. But Judith Kerr stuck to her guns: "I said the bit about the water in the tap was the part my children liked best." Good for her!

Mog the Forgetful Cat soon followed and ended up with eleven picture book titles plus board books, including the heartbreaking Goodbye, Mog, when the beloved cat was at last allowed to die, after thirty-two years. This animal entered the nation's unconscious, becoming the template for all rather eccentric felines. She was based on a real Mog in the family but gradually acquired the characteristic of a long line of pet cats.

There were other picture books too - about an angel, a Goose, and lots of Grannies (based on the cohort of elderly widowed women Judith Kerr found herself a part of in 2000).

I think Judith Kerr really underestimates herself as a writer and I hope it's not because she was married to one and the mother to another. Picture book texts are extremely hard to write: they are like poems, where every word has to justify its place and be absolutely right. So much of her writing has entered our family language and I'm sure that of many families.

This is a book for adults. You can read it in an hour and a half, as I did, and then spend many more hours poring over the pictures. Not just finished artwork but sketches, early paintings, the unexpected and lovely textile designs from the '50s, old family photographs. It is a fitting and beautifully-produced celebration of a much-loved writer and artist.

Thank you, HarperCollins, and thank you so much, Judith Kerr for enhancing childhood - and parenthood - for so many people.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Veuve Cliquot on the Grand Canal

Jeremy Deller at the British Pavilion

We were not in Venice FOR the Biennale, you understand. We just happened to be there the weekend it opened to the public. The really grand events are the parties before the public opening but I think I would have hated those. Still, since we were there and it was on and we probably will never experience that conjunction again, we went.

The Exhibition takes place in two ways. There are the main shows in two places: The Arsenale and the Giardini and you buy a joint ticket which gives you one entrance to each. At the Arsenale there is one enormous space divided into rooms, at the Giardini, there are separate Pavilions for each nation, the picture above being by Jeremy Deller, who curated the British one.

But the other way is much more serendipitous and sometimes better. Individual artists and smaller nations take over a palazzo or other space and you go in for free.

We paid our money and went through every room in the Arsenale. (I thought of Molly Bloom - "nice name [it] has!"). We saw wooden tables which has five legs all on one side or one zigzag one. We saw a monstrous ?Flight Attendant and many. many videos.

We walked round till our legs ached. Alarming and disturbing but very powerful was a vast room of skeletons made in grey plastic. Actually, not all skeletons; some had ribbons of flesh still attached. They were Venetians by Pawel Althamer.

And a giant structure of what seemed to be stone but was in fact 3D printed and then treated with stone-dust, called Belinda. This was by Roberto Cuoghi

In the Giardini, after a roomful of pages from Jung's Red Book, we encountered the first of Tino Sehgal's performers. At first I thought a young woman was having an epileptic fit and was relieved to find she could control her movements while the young man writhing on the floor beside her beatboxed. For this untitled piece Sehgal won the Golden Lion for best Artist at the Biennale.

I was quite glad Roberto Cuoghi got a special mention.

In the Palazzo Pisani, outside the main exhibition, the wings were on a horse by Simon Ma, the second most famous Chinese artist featured in the Biennale. His exhibition, called Ink - Brush - Heart, featured forms based on water drops.

There was something quite haunting about Ma's work, which included semi-abstract peacock paintings as well.

There was a funeral in Madonna dell'Orto, so we saw another free exhibition in the building next door : Jorge Pombo's Variazioni di Tintoretto. This Barcelona artist had taken an original painting by Tintoretto, The Miracle of Saint Mark, currently housed in the Accademia in Venice, and systematically deconstructed it in several huge canvases, showing the scene more and more blurred and broken down.

Tintoretto's original

One of Pombo's Variations

This one is still quite recognisable. I don't know how great the Variations cycle really is but it was painted by someone with considerable talent and a clear idea of what he wanted to do.

In Madonna dell'Orto's Clositer was the best exhibition of the lot: Emily Young's massive head sculptures, in an exhibition called We Are Stone's Children. In materials ranging from Dolomitic Limestone to Lapis Lazuli, partial heads, profiles or half-views emerge from the rock like Michelangelo's Slaves in Florence's Accademia.

If I'd had a spare hundred and fifty grand, one of these would have ended up in my garden. You can catch the exhibition in London 6th-26th September at the Fine Art Society Gallery.

We missed the smart parties but were present at one of our own, with American art critic Patricia Fortini Brown, Shakespeare and Children's Literature scholar, Laura Tosi plus a writer, poet, musician, dancer and sculptor (the last four were all one person). Veuve Cliquot was consumed and Art and Literature discussed while overlooking the Grand Canal. That was quite smart enough for me.

What does the Biennale teach us about books, if anything? Here are two pictures:

One is "Art", the other just washing. I'm sure you can work out which is which. There is too much of the former and not enough of the latter in much fashionable literature, including children's literature. It's not so much a question of the Emperor's new clothes not being there; too often there isn't even any Emperor. Just a Press Release and a puff from a big name.

I would award my Golden Lion to Emily Young.