Friday, 31 October 2014

Hallowe'en book giveaway

So, it's Hallowe'en - is this spooky enough for you?

This was the first book I had published (thank you, A&C Black!) and it's about a ghost who's not scary enough - at least for his teacher, the dreaded Sir Rupert. With exams looming, tension is running high in the school for spooks - and to cap it all, the In-spectres are due to make a visit. Spooker and his pals need to pull off some pretty impressive haunting, and fast.

Terrifying illustrations by the wonderful Lynne Chapman!

I have a copy or three to give away - to win one for a trick-or-treater near you, or for your school library. I'll pick the winners out of a hat, and if you are one, I'll let you know. Good luck!



Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Snarling of Wolves, by Vivian French

Vivian French deftly uses elements of fairy-tale and myth to create the setting of The Snarling of Wolves; so, for instance, we find a (Less) Enchanted Forest, three Ancient Crones (who, like the Greek Fates, weave a magical web), more princes and princesses than you can shake a broomstick at, werewolves, zombies, a faithful troll - and an intelligence network of bats, whose leader, Marlon, wisecracks away like a character from Raymond Chandler.

The heroine, Gracie Gillypot, is a Trueheart, someone who brings out the good in people. The hero is Prince Marcus, who, unlike most of the other Royals in the Five Kingdoms, is brave, bright and adventurous. Gracie lives outside the Five Kingdoms (which are quite small, as Marcus realises when he looks down on them from the top of a tower), in the Less Enchanted Forest with the afore-mentioned Ancient Crones. The Crones are also responsible for keeping Foyce Undershaft safely away from the public. Foyce is half girl, half werewolf - and all bad. She hates Gracie, whom she blames for her captivity, and concocts a cunning plan to get her own back on the other girl and her beloved Marcus. Her hatred is the engine that sets the plot in motion.

The story moves at a swift pace and is liberally sprinkled with funny dialogue and great characters, as well as a generous scattering of fairy dust. I particularly liked the Ancient Crones (like calling to like, no doubt...) and the less ancient but still pretty elderly Queen Bluebell - but was also strangely drawn to the splendidly wicked Foyce and the conflicted but ultimately principled werewolves. All these are brought visually to life by Ross Collins' splendid illustrations. I wish I could show you some; you can get the idea from the cover with its magnificent werewolf, but you really need to see the full-page line drawings too. The artist clearly had a lot of fun, and he adds greatly to the reader's enjoyment of the book and understanding of the characters and their environment.

All these elements are very fine, but the absolute tour-de-force is the ending. All the characters, and all the different strands of the story, are brought together (by means of exceptionally skillful plotting) in a stunning set piece, where the good triumph, the wicked are overthrown, the fairly average change for the better, the misunderstood receive a sympathetic hearing, and the onlookers - and - readers can only cheer in admiration and delight. I can't tell you any more about it because it would spoil it - but no word of a lie, I haven't admired an ending as much since I read John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.

This is the sixth in the Tales from the Five Kingdoms series, which began with The Robe of Skulls. You could read it as a standalone, but why would you? Better by far to read the whole series. And if anyone from Dreamworks or Disney is reading this (and why wouldn't they be?) - please note that this series would make an amazing animation. Oh, what you couldn't do with the path-with-a-mind-of-its-own, the troll who regularly loses his head, the silly princesses and the sinister Foyce!

I'd say the core audience would be 9-12 year olds. But as with so many children's books, you really don't have to be a child to enjoy it.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Cover Your Eyes, by Adele Geras

I had scheduled this to come out on Tuesday, my regular day - but the book came out yesterday, and it's all very exciting, so I thought, why wait? And so here it is.

Cover Your Eyes, published by Quercus, is a welcome return to writing for adults from Adele Geras, who is also a much-loved writer of books for children and young adults (notably Troy and the Egerton Hall trilogy). It tells the story of two women, the charming and rather mysterious eighty-year-old Eva Conway, once a famous fashion designer, and Megan Pritchard, a young journalist who is sent to interview her.

Megan has been having an affair with her married boss, Simon. At the beginning of the book, her hopes that he will leave his wife for her are dashed when he tells her that the affair must end because his wife is pregnant. Shattered and deeply wounded, she leaves her job. Her father is in New Zealand and her mother is dead; the only person she can confide in is her best friend Jay - and Jay is in America. The only positive thing in her world at the moment is an article she has written about Eva Conway. When it comes out, however, she finds it has been edited – badly, she thinks – by Simon. She becomes fixated on the idea that she must take a copy of the magazine to Eva and explain why the text is not the same as the one she had sent Eva for approval.

And so the action moves to Salix House, where Eva’s daughter, Rowena, has told her that her beloved house (in trust for Rowena to avoid death duties) must be sold, because they can’t afford to keep it up. It makes far more sense, she says, for them all to move to London, where Rowena works. Eva is distraught. Salix House means everything to her: it ‘had been at the same time a source of happiness and a repository of memories, many of which made her shiver even now.’ The difficult memories, we find, concern her marriage, but they go back even further, to when Eva first arrived in England from Germany many years ago.

Despite her own troubles, Eva is concerned by Megan's unhappiness. Although on the surface they would seem to have little in common, they are in tune in a way in which Eva and her daughter clearly are not. Rowena is urgently looking for a temporary nanny for her two daughters, and it quickly dawns on everyone that if Megan were to take on the job, it would solve a number of problems all at the same time.

The book’s prologue has already suggested that there is something mysterious and disturbing at Salix House. ‘She’s there. I’ve covered up her reflection in the mirror but I know she’s there. I’m under the blankets. I can’t breathe...’ There are things far back in Eva’s past which she has never been able to face, and, perhaps because of her own unhappiness, Megan too begins to see fleeting images in mirrors and to sense a restless presence. So both their stories unfold: we gradually find out about Eva’s past, whilst at the same time Megan’s present and future unfold.

Eva is a fascinating character – strong but also vulnerable, loving but apparently unable to love her own daughter, capable but oddly passive. I felt like cheering when she finally faced up to the past and took charge of her future, and I'd actually quite like a whole book just about her. (The descriptions of her dress designs, for instance, are delicious and intriguing.) With Megan, on the other hand, I felt quite cross, but that’s probably because I’m a fair bit closer to Eva’s age than I am to Megan’s, so that when Megan is agonising over Simon, I feel a little impatient with her – can’t she see how awful he is? When the truth, of course is, that she can’t, because she’s never been in love before.

This is the perfect book to curl up with on a dreary winter’s evening. You will not want to put it down till you have unravelled the mystery of Salix House, and – unless you are very cynical indeed! – you will be delighted at the way that everything is resolved. Adele Geras is expert at handling the intertwining narratives, at drip-feeding clues about Eva’s past, and at ratchetting up the tension. A haunting tale, in more ways than one!

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Wanting: by Richard Flanagan

I was given this book for my birthday by my son. I didn’t realise till my husband helpfully pointed it out to me that Richard Flanagan is also the author of A Narrow Road To The Deep North, which has just won the Man Booker prize – and which I had given my son for his birthday back in August.
So, moving swiftly on past this lamentable evidence of my inability to remember titles and authors – let's talk about Wanting.

Set in the late 1830s, Wanting skilfully links two stories which on the face of it should have no meeting point. The first relates to an Aborigine girl called Mathinna (though, prophetically as it turns out, she has been christened ‘Leda’ by the Englishman in charge of the settlement where she lives, on a small island between what is now Tasmania, and Australia). The second concerns Charles Dickens, and the beginning of his affair with Ellen Ternan.

The link is a well-to-do English woman, Lady Jane Franklin. When we meet her, she is trying to
salvage the reputation of her husband, Sir John. He has disappeared while exploring the polar regions, and she is distressed by rumours that the expedition ended in cannibalism. Knowing that Charles Dickens has the ear of the nation, she appeals to him to help her end the rumours and restore her husband’s reputation.

Dickens is unhappy. His beloved daughter Dora has just died, and his marriage has become hollow. He throws himself into writing a play about the expedition, which at first is produced as one of his fêted home entertainments, but which is so successful that he decides to put on a professional version. One of the actresses is Ellen Ternan, and the rest – well, you know the saying.

Flanagan, through a narrative which switches from one story to another, and from one time to another, gradually reveals the story of Mathinna, and how she is the catalyst which eventually brings about the failed expedition. It is a terrible story. It’s not just Mathinna’s story: it’s the story of colonialism and specifically of the destruction of the aboriginal way of life, in which the profound victims are the aborigines, but their oppressors are also ultimately degraded and destroyed.

Wanting is a hard read, because it’s so relentlessly sad. Dickens is deeply unhappy, but so is his wife. Ellen is thrilled by Dickens’ attentions – but we know that the affair will not end happily for her. Mathinna is happy for a short while, but not for long. Lady Jane, unable to have children, takes up Mathinna as an experiment in education. But the child becomes – like Ellen – the object of an obsession. Ellen is many years younger than Dickens, and, dazzled by his celebrity, is arguably exploited by him. But there is no argument at all about Sir John’s abuse of, and subsequent unspeakably cruel destruction of Mathinna as a result of his obsession. Even so, he is not a pantomime villain. Flanagan shows us who and what Sir John is - and there are things to like about him; he shows us human nature in all its disturbing complexity.

From what I’ve heard about A Narrow Road to The North, based on Flanagan’s father’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war, that’s an even less comfortable, if at least equally remarkable read. Once, when I was a sixth-former, I went to a conference at Manchester University. One of the talks was about comedy and tragedy. The speaker suggested that  the two forms are just different ways of looking at the human condition. With tragedy, the writer considers the life of the individual – which is ultimately tragic because it ends in death. With comedy, the writer takes a broader view and considers humanity as a whole. It’s a distinction that’s always stayed with me, though I’m not sure how useful it really is: I mention it here because I want to find a way of suggesting that Flanagan’s bleak vision is not the only way of looking at life.

In other words – if you want a happy ending (and I really do like a happy ending!), Flanagan is not the writer for you. But if you are in the mood to think, and to face up to some of the darkest corners of the human soul, then he undoubtedly is.

Next week: a brand new new adult novel ( released later this week) from Adele Geras. Lovely!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Story of Matthew Buzzington, by Andy Stanton: published by Barrington Stoke

And this week, a children's book!

I read this book with my grandson, Oskar, just after we’d finished Mr Gum and the Biscuit Billionnaire, by the same author – and we both agreed that although we enjoyed the Mr Gum book, we much preferred this one. The story is really powerful: it’s great fun and has a strong narrative drive too - we read it in one day, even though there was sunshine and a swimming pool and lots of other nice holiday things we could have been doing instead. It has a lot of important things to say – about bullying, friendship, trust, individuality – but the messages aren't laid on with a trowel; they just emerge naturally from what happens.

The hero, Matthew Buzzington, is quite certain that he can turn into a fly. He keeps the faith, even though  he’s never actually managed to do it. At the beginning of the book he is living happily in the country with his parents and his little sister, who never says anything except ‘Elephant’. But then his father gets a new job and to Matthew’s horror, all of a sudden they have to move to the city.

At his new school, he is greeted by the school bully, Pineapple Johnson, the school bully, who is very big and very scary. Pineapple tells Matthew that if he can do something special, then he will leave him alone: if not, he will make his life a misery. This is exactly the time when Matthew’s superpower needs to come through for him – but yet again, try as he might to turn into a fly, it simply doesn’t happen. Pineapple does what he promised: he makes Matthew’s life a misery.

Then one day things come to a head. Pineapple sends round a note about Matthew. When it reaches him, and the teacher catches him, Matthew has had enough; he tells on Pineapple, and as a result, both are told to go and see the Head at the end of school.

But the Head forgets about them, and before they realise what’s happened, Matthew and Pineapple find that they have been locked in the school. And then things get even trickier...

The finale is brilliant – exciting and very satisfying. When they’re put to the test, Matthew and Pineapple both show their true colours – and so does someone else, someone entirely unexpected. This is a really, really good ending, which leaves you with a sense of delighted surprise that everything can have turned out so well.

The book is beautifully produced, with easy-to-read print which is well-spaced, and helpful, funny illustrations from Ross Coolins. And there’s a bonus at the end; a set of stickers which reproduce bits of the pictures. Oskar really enjoyed these, talking about which bit in the story each one came from and thinking carefully where to place them on a piece of card - they helped him to consider his thoughts about the book.

This is a very special book. Laugh-out-loud funny, absolutely gripping on the surface, with a lot to think about underneath. 

PS Another book that had Oskar and I chortling very merrily indeed was Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face and the Quest for the Magic Porcupine, by John Dougherty. I reviewed it here.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon: by Linda Newbery

Welcome to the first post of my new blog! I've been writing for two group blogs - The History Girls and An Awfully Big Blog Adventure - for ages: but, late to the party as usual, I've never had a blog of my own before. Oh dear - I feel as if I'm sending my first child off to school for the first time... well, here goes, it's got to be done. Please be kind and visit often!

Linda Newbery's books have so far been mainly for young adults – though my own favourite, Lob, a take on the legend of the Green Man, is a story for younger children. A deeply satisfying story, it draws from myth, but is also a very real and human tale about the cycle of life: about death and renewal. 

Her latest novel is her first for adults. This is an eagerly anticipated event, so I’m really thrilled that I am able to make Quarter Past Two On A Wednesday Afternoon the subject of the first review on my new blog, and I'm very grateful to Doubleday for sending me a copy.

The mystery at the centre of Quarter Past Two begins with a  disappearance. Anna and her big sister Rose are in the garden on a summer afternoon. Anna is bored, and at a quarter past two, she goes off to the shops. When she returns, Rose has gone. A few of her things are missing, but she has left no note, no clue as to what has happened to her: she has simply vanished.

Twenty years later, Rose's family are still none the wiser as to her fate, and none of them, but particularly Sandra, her mother, and Anna herself, are able to break free from the aftershock of her disappearance. Anna drifts from one non-consequential job to another, from one boyfriend to another, seemingly with an urge to self-destruct when anything looks as if it might become permanent; she can't rest, she can't settle. Sandra refuses to discuss what has happened, but the brittle carapace she has built round herself looks as if it’s beginning to crack. Is she beginning to suffer from dementia, or is something else going on?

It looks at this stage as if the book is going to be a murder mystery, and Anna does take on the rôle of a detective – feeling that perhaps if she can find out what happened to Rose, she will be able to move on more effectively with her own life. But the narrative begins to twist and turn; Anna makes unexpected discoveries and meanwhile, her own life seems to be spiraling out of control. The story becomes broader and deeper. It’s like one of those Russian dolls; the outer one comes apart to reveal another underneath – and then that too reveals another, and another, and another. Nothing seems to be telling us what happened to Rose, but all sorts of other secrets begin to emerge, till we see that this apparently ordinary family has not one but several tragedies at its heart, which all impinge on one another.

Linda Newbery takes her time with this story – more so, perhaps, than she would have done had it been intended for young adults. The structure is complex, as the narrative emerges from the viewpoints of Anna and her mother at several different points in their lives. Something else which is possible because this is an adult novel is an ending which contains uncertainties, which is not at all what the reader – well, this reader anyway – would have expected. (Which would make it a brilliant book for book groups: so much to discuss! Could it – should it – have happened like this…?)

This is a beautifully written book which doesn't rush to exert its hold. But when it does, it will not let go. It’s a bit like the recent TV series, Broadchurch; every time you think you’re getting close to the heart of the mystery, it veers away from a solution and poses another puzzle. It’s quiet and complex: a gripping and disconcerting read. It's about the dramas in everyday lives; it's about how a single event can send out ripples which affect all those around it. Could you ever have predicted the ending? Read it, and decide for yourself.

With this accomplished and subtle story, Linda Newbery shows that no age group is beyond her reach.