Tuesday, December 28, 2010
So deviating slightly from the structure of Candy’s post (and Kathryn Evans, Vanessa Harbour and Dave Cousins - who've done similar posts) here’s my list of influential books, in no particular order (other than the first two):
Linnets and Valerians - Elizabeth Goudge
If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll have seen this one come up time and again. For me it is a classic case of magic and realism brought together beautifully and I suppose, no matter how “dated” the story may seem to a modern child, it is that deftness of touch and lyricism of words that always resounds for me.
The Little White Horse – Elizabeth Goudge
I read this story as a 10 year old, having borrowed it from a friend. Over the years I forgot its title but I never forgot the story - the magic had totally captivated me. Much to my delight, I found it had been reprinted earlier this decade – after JK Rowling had said it had been one of the books which had most inspired her journey to becoming a published author.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – JK Rowling
Of all the Harry Potter books this one stood out for me – it further developed the Potteresque world, was better written and combined, as Goudge had done, magic, myth and reality in a classic fantasy. The series per se, no matter what you think of the quality of the writing, opened up the world of reading to many non-reading children - and, in doing so it opened the market for writers and authors.
The Pure Dead series - Debi Gliori
OMG! This woman can make me laugh out loud, she gets humour so bang on and her imagination is a riot. I take my hat off to anyone who writes children’s humour with such insight and ability to tickle the funny bone. Although I don’t write humour, I am well aware of how difficult it is to do and get right, and, moreover, I think every book, irrespective of genre, benefits from having even just a couple of lines which make the reader chuckle.
How I Live Now – Meg Rosoff
I wasn’t sure how I was going to like How I Live Now and I wasn’t sure I felt about it even when I’d finished reading the book. Meg Rosoff broke all sorts of barriers when she wrote this book and I soon came to realise that was exactly the reason why the book resonated for me - and resonated more the longer I thought about it. It’s a book that’s tough, it’s real and it’s powerful, and it’s written by an author unafraid to do things differently and tell the story in a way she has to tell it. Meg has gone on to become one of my favourite authors.
Lucas – Kevin Brooks
I list Lucas as it was the first Kevin Brooks book I read. Frankly, I’d happily list the lot (Road of the Dead, Killing God, Candy, they’re all up there amongst my top books). I love this man’s writing. He’s unafraid to tackle difficult subjects (in Lucas he deals with love, hatred, prejudice and jealousy), and he writes in a way that may be defined as both art and craft. He’s good, really good, and if I get to write anywhere near as well as him, tackling tough subjects head on and yet with insight, sensitivity and power, I’ll be happy.
(You can read my interview with Kevin Brooks here.)
Wicked Lovely – Melissa Marr
This is a book that brings me back almost full circle – it’s urban fantasy, myth and lore colliding head on with reality. It’s faeries and humans and all the confusion and hopes of being a young adult in-between. There’s romance, there’s grit, there’s magic – it’s the sort of mix that I would have loved to read as a 16 year old. It’s got everything that has timeless appeal to older teen girls.
Crossing the Line – Gillian Philip
This was the first of Gillian’s books which I read and I knew immediately I was in the hands (or between the pages) of an author who was going places. Like Kevin Brooks, Gillian is unafraid to tackle tough subjects – and to do so with tremendous insight - and deft touches of humour – take it from me, it’s not an easy balance to get right. Gillian’s honesty and her fearlessness really struck and resonated with me.
(You can read my interview with Gillian Philip here.)
Tall Story – Candy Gourlay
Candy is a writer whom one cannot help but admire and respect. I have watched her journey through the slushpile over the years. Her sheer determination to work at and hone her craft and achieve publication are credit to her, and the arrival of Tall Story on the shelves earlier this year proves that working at it and persevering are worth it. Tall Story is a triumph and in so many ways. It’s a story that blends magic, humour, reality and it makes you laugh and cry. Moreover, it’s a book that is superbly crafted and deserves every award for which it is being nominated. Of course, I am biased – Candy is my pal and critique partner and I’m kind of hopeful that some process of osmosis will occur…
(You can read my interview with Candy Gourlay here.)
City of Thieves – Ellen Renner
Now here’s another author (and pal and critique partner) who has honed her craft. For me, Ellen Renner’s characterization and her ability to “show not tell”, stands out from the crowd. She is also unafraid to tackle big subjects in a way which is accessible to younger children. If you want to learn about crafting a story, and enjoy a jolly good adventure which challenges your thinking at the same time, you couldn’t do better than reading this book.
(You can read my interview with Ellen Renner here and my review of City of Thieves here.)
Forbidden – Tabitha Suzuma
I’ll be honest, I struggled with Forbidden – and yet I couldn’t put it down. For me, what stands out is Tabitha’s ability to tackle the grittiest, the most challenging of subjects - and to do it bravely, honestly and without pandering to niceties and sensitivities. Forbidden is a story which challenges not only the reader and his/her perceptions, but, I suspect, heartily challenges the publishing industry as to what is acceptable reading for young adults. Yet Forbidden is also a book which is beautifully crafted and sensitively told. All credit to Tabitha for her courage in writing Forbidden.
(You can read my interview with Tabitha Suzuma here.)
You’ll probably have noticed that most of the books that stand out for me are written for teens or young adults – and that’s because I’m blown away by the quality and variety of writing for this age group and wish that books like these had been around when I was 16. I guess it also becomes pretty apparent that similar things constantly inspire and inform me – from craft to honesty, from perseverance to genre – and frequently the blending of realism with “magic” or the supernatural. But above all, I think it is the courage of each writer to boldly and deftly tell the stories they simply have to tell. With each book I read, with each aspect that stands out for me and which I take on board, I know my own writing grows stronger as does my confidence in telling the stories I know I too have to tell.
Friday, December 24, 2010
“You have Christmas in the heat? How do you do that?” Er, well, actually, we do it in much the same way as you guys in the far north.
As the SARocks blog says, “…we were a British colony for over a century… You don’t think there might be a few, erm, familiar features? Despite the dramatic difference in temperatures, we still have European-style Christmas decorations everywhere – plastic mistletoe, fake snow on shop windows, great big evergreen Christmas trees, Boney-M singing “Mary’s Boy Child” booming out from every PA system… And for many of my school friends, the traditional Christmas lunch was a hot meal of turkey and trimmings. Having said that, large portions of the country are not of British stock and therefore do not feel bound to sweat their way through a turkey dinner while the swimming pool beckons outside"
And that pretty much sums it up.
Ironically, I remember few very hot Christmases because here, for some odd reason, it inevitably rains in Cape Town on Christmas day! And for that I’m grateful, because with a family of thoroughly mixed origin from even colder climes than the UK – the full “real deal” was always how we always did Christmas. Moreover, combining various traditions we really made a meal of it and celebrated Christmas on both Christmas Eve and Christmas day.
I still do the same; with a meat fondue and present opening on Christmas Eve and more present opening and a traditional lunch on Christmas day. I've tried to adapt it over the years to incorporate Lovely Husband’s English and Scottish heritage - though it’s a tough act to perfect. In an ideal world I'd do a gammon and a goose but Lovely Husband won't hear of eating a goose (despite the two that have taken to swimming and shagging in the pool). He won't eat duck either which would be the other option, and my mother won't eat gammon... It all makes traditional Christmases a bit tricky.
So, this year, I am catering to suit myself. After popping round to see my mother on Christmas Eve, we will come home to a presents and a fondue next to the Christmas tree - there may even be schmaltzy Christmas music in the background – you know, Bing crooning “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas…” On Christmas day, my mother will be having Christmas elsewhere as she's done for the past 16 years (and will have roast lamb and roast chicken) while I will make a traditional glazed gammon and a duck stuffed with apples. There may be more schmaltzy music and then there will be a movie – this year, Robert Zemeckis’ The Christmas Carol.
And then, on Boxing Day (known here in more recent years as the Day of Goodwill) there will be fasting. Actually, there won’t, there’ll snacking on leftovers whilst slobbing out next to the pool.
I do admit that having celebrated several Christmases in the snow, doing it in the heat is a bit odd but still, I believe it's called making the most of multiple heritages.
Wherever you are and however you do – or don’t – celebrate the holiday season, may you have a happy, peaceful, joyous and wonderful time!
From Africa to the rest of the world... MERRY CHRISTMAS!
Afishapa (Akan -Ghana)
Merry Kisimusi (Zimbabwe)
Geseënde Kersfees (Afrikaans - South Africa)
Sinifisela Ukhisimusi Omuhle (Zulu - South Africa)
Sinifisela Khisimusi Lomuhle (Swazi - Swaziland)
Matswalo a Morena a Mabotse (Sotho - Lesotho)
Kuwa na Krismasi njema (Swahili - Tanzania)
Melkam Yelidet Beaal (Amharic - Ethiopia)
Colo sana wintom tiebeen (Egyptian)
E ku odun, e hu iye' dun! (Yoruba -Nigeria)
Friday, December 17, 2010
And there are two winners.
Yes, it was all done properly. To the chagrin of my tree-hugging friends, I printed out all the entries, cut up the paper and folded it neatly. Then I put the names into a mixing bowl – sorry, no hat available – and tossed them together like a good salad, and got Lovely Husband to close his eyes and draw two names from the bowl.
So, I’m happy to announce that the winners are…
Michele Fabio of the blog Bleeding Espresso,
Alice – for whom I have no contact details.
So, Alice, would you please contact me by Monday 20th December - you will find an email address on the blog’s profile page - and let me have your postal details so Ellen can send you your copy.
Congratulations to both of you, and I hope you both enjoy reading Ellen’s wonderful story!
To the rest of you, I’m sorry you couldn’t all get a copy of City of Thieves, but thanks for entering!
UPDATE - 21 December 2010:
I've not heard from Alice and have no way of contacting her, so I've drawn another name from the mixing bowl - and this time the winner is BlueIceGal from the Fantasy4Eva blog. BlueIceGal, I'll be contacting you via your blog to get your postal details. Congratulations on the win!
Thursday, December 9, 2010
See details at the end of the review.
Ellen Renner, whom I recently had the extremely good fortune to meet, has produced a wonderful, rich and gripping novel in City of Thieves. I absolutely loved it. The story has rich characterization, a powerful voice and vivid imagery. It reminded me in fact of another author, and it wasn’t until Ellen mentioned her favourite author that I realised who it was… None other than the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones. Although the two authors can’t be compared, there is no doubt about the influence of Wynne Jones on Ellen Renner, and all to Ellen’s benefit.
Ellen Renner’s writing is nothing sort of a joy to read. Her words conjure up vivid emotions and rich images and she writes with a deft touch. I always feel when I read Ellen’s books that I am watching a master craftsman at work. Her ability to “show” rather then “tell” brings her work to life in a way which other writers would do well to learn from.
But not only has Ellen Renner perfected the craft of writing, she tells a damned fine story too. The Times quotes City of Thieves as having “'a dramatic plot, like a cross between Oliver Twist and Black Hearts in Battersea,” and says, “Renner is a real discovery.' She certainly is. And it’s no small wonder City of Thieves made the Times Top Books list for 2010.
In City of Thieves, Ellen takes up where she left off in Castle of Shadows (see my previous interview with Ellen about Castle of Shadows). Charlie is now Queen of Quale, but not a happy one – she is haunted by her fears and her sorrows. Yet despite Charlie’s strong story and the intrigue which surrounds it, it is Tobias Petch for whom we really feel in this novel.
Tobias is Ellen’s main protagonist in City of Thieves and he is a wonderful character with whom the reader is immediately able to identify. One senses that Tobias has, in fact, a very special place in Ellen’s heart. She nails his voice bang on and the reader is left in no doubt that this is a character worth rooting for. By the time we read the line "The final shock of it hit home. The Petches were thieves, and they had stolen him” we are totally gripped – and the shocks and the thrills and shivers of dreadful anticipation just keep coming.
For every “right” thing that Toby tries to do, something goes awry and he becomes more embroiled in other people’s evil plots and plans. It soon becomes clear that the underlying theme of this story is that sometimes even good people have to do bad things in order to ensure their survival and, more particularly, the survival of those whom they love.
Toby’s plight is enhanced by two exceptional villains in the forms of Zebediah Petch, Toby’s violent and criminal uncle, and Alistair Windlass, his ruthless father. Ellen’s villains work so exceptionally well because they are morally ambiguous - there is always the hint of just a little bit of good in them, despite their ruthlessness and cunning. Her treatment of them serves to make them completely believable - and frightening. And trapped between the desires of these two characters, Toby, a feisty boy in his own right, has to fight for his life and his personal and moral integrity.
Readers will be captivated by the thrills, the moral dilemmas and the battles and struggles which both Toby and Charlie must endure.
The story ends on a cliff hanger, and I truly hope we get to read the next story in the series really soon, as I await the release with a good deal of impatience!
City of Thieves is suitable for children of nine years and older and will appeal to boys and girls alike. It can be bought through Amazon and the Book Depository
To read a more indepth review of City Of Thieves, see what the Book Maven had to say.
The competition is open to everyone, wherever you are.
Winners will be chosen randomly.
Please be sure I can contact you to let you know if you’ve won.
All entries must be submitted by 23:59 GMT on 16 December, 2010.
Late entries will not be eligible.
Friday, December 3, 2010
As a child I grew up on books. A few were bought for me, but many others were taken on loan from the public library. I remember the thrill of tramping up the worn wooden stairs and creeping between the bookshelves, my hands running over the book spines, stroking them. The local public library was a magical place of adventure. My tiny junior school library was even more magical - a large, pitch-painted, timber "wendy house" set under two towering pines. I was "librarian" for at least one term each year of junior school and I remember feeling so proud of my duties. The high school library was just as special - a darkened, hallowed space which offered me more books than I could dream of - it became my sanctuary, the place I escaped to each lunchtime.
I was privileged to have these places to go to, to find and read the books that I did. They fuelled my imagination, enhanced my love of reading and of learning, and ultimately they inspired me to do what I do now - to write for children. Critically, in the instance of this blog post, every book I read was written by a British author - Frances Hodgson Burnett, Elizabeth Goudge, E Nesbitt, Enid Blyton and many more... These writers and their books made my world a richer place, they showed me how deal with complex ideas and situations in a way which I could understand. They helped me to grow and I am privileged to have been able to access them.
By the time I reached university, where I spent hours in the several campus libraries, I realised what an incredible resource libraries were. I discovered interlibrary loans, archives and an absolute wealth of information that informed me. I could never have afforded to have bought all the books I devoured and I am deeply grateful to the library system for furthering my education, and in so many ways. Because this is what libraries do, this is what libraries are - incredible resources of information, education, enlightenment and personal growth
I am thus deeply saddened when I read the blog posts of so many of my British friends about planned library cuts in the UK. It strikes me as the most short-sighted move imaginable. It strikes me doubly, living in a place where libraries are in short supply and books are not a priority for children because they're too expensive and we have so many more pressing basic needs like education, healthcare and housing. The UK has something we do not. Aside from an established education and library infrastructure, it has a cultural love of books and it has produced some of the most remarkable storytellers and fiction writers in the world. It has something which has shaped the both the British and Commonwealth cultural landscape and continues to do so. The UK has, through its library system, something so precious to give its young people, something we, sadly, do not yet have. It has a culture of reading, where we do not. UK libraries serve the entire populace, we have considerably fewer libraries and ours serve only a minority. So when I read that the UK is planning on cutting its libraries, I want to smack my forehead, bang several heads together and ask if the UK government has taken leave of its senses. Does it not realise how reading fuels a child's imagination and helps them deal with the world? Does it not realise that reading develops the future capacity for learning and understanding? Does it not realise that in developing this capacity for learning and understanding in builds a nation and forges future leaders? And does it not realise the fundamental role and multiple roles its libraries play in this process?
While here, we battle to get people to realise the critical importance of reading fiction to enhance and enrich young lives, and call for libraries to be built, in the UK the goverment is taking what it has and is simply trashing it. If there was a way to take all UK libraries and transport them to Africa, I would gladly do it - such is the richness the UK government seeks to throw away, and to the great detriment of its populace and its future.
Truly, to take this precious thing and to cast it aside is nothing short of a singular and myopic travesty.
I realise, of course, that it is not really my place to talk out on this topic (not that that has stopped me!), so I refer you to some excellent posts on the subject of library closures written by friends.
Notes from the Slushpile - Bye Bye Libraries. Bye Bye civilization by Teri Terry
Notes from the Slushpile - Fight for our Libraries by Candy Gourlay
Central Scribble City - Library Emergency - The Unkindest Cuts of All by Lucy Coats
Philip Ardagh on Why Libraries Really, Really Matter.
Almost True - Who Uses Libraries by Keren David
Jon Mayhew on Can I borrow a Book?
Sarwat Chadda on Me and My Library
Nina Kilham on Libraries? Old Fashioned?
Mrs Bung Why You Should Care About Libraries by Kathryn Evans
Who Ate My Brain Thoughts from a Reluctant Library User by Nick Cross
KM Lockwood An Open Letter to MPs
Fifteen Days Without A Head on Why Libraries are Important by Dave Cousins
A Blogging Writer on Library Closures by Bryony Pearce
Sue Hyams on For the Love of Libraries
There are also several worthy comments and letters on The Campaign for the Book Facebook page. Also see Alan Gibbons' Campaign for the Book blog
And an erudite piece by Michael Rosen, the previous incumbent of the position of the UK's Children's Laureate.
Also take a look Voices for the Library which promotes the libraries in the UK.
If you are British and have read this - please, do something to support the fate of your libraries - and your country. Write to your MPs responsible for Culture and libraries, write to your local MP. Blog about it, Tweet about it. If you care about this, let your voice be heard. Don't wait until it is too late and too many of your libraries have gone.