Friday, 31 December 2010

Festive Fifteen - Best Books of 2010 (Part 3)

 To round-off the year, here is the final part of my Festive Fifteen top reads of 2010. (You can read Parts One and Two here, if you missed them.)

Rowan The Strange by Julie Hearn. 
It's September 1939 and war has just been declared. Rowan can hear his sister in the house, playing the piano. That's when the voices start – telling him a bomb will fall on them if she doesn't stop. When Laurel refuses to listen to his warning, Rowan slams the lid down in desperation, breaking three of her fingers in the process. This isn't the first time that Rowan has done something strange, so while other children are being evacuated to the country, Rowan is sent to a psychiatric hospital where the latest treatments are available – but nobody predicts the effect they will have on him …

Tall Story by Candy Gourlay. 
Basketball-mad Andi hopes her long lost half-brother, Bernardo, will turn out tall and just as mad on basketball as she is. Sixteen-year-old Nardo isn't just tall – he's a giant. He lives in a village in the Philippines and is desperate to go to England, but there is a problem. Everybody in the village believes that he is the legendary Bernardo The Giant, and local superstition states that his presence is the only reason the town has not been destroyed by an earthquake.

When I Was Joe by Keren David. 
When Ty witnesses a stabbing, his own life is in danger from the criminals he identifies, so he and his mum have to go into police protection. Ty is given a new name, a new look and a cool new image. Life as Joe is good, especially when he gets talent spotted as a potential athletics star, special training from an attractive local celebrity and a lot of female attention. But his mum can’t cope with her new life, and the gangsters will stop at nothing to flush them out of hiding.

Witchfinder by William Hussey. 
When a violent storm rages around the little village of Hobarron's Hollow, a young boy is sacrificed to prevent an apocalyptic disaster known as the Demontide. Twenty-five years later, another boy, Jake Harker, finds himself drawn into the nightmare of the Demontide. Witches and demon familiars stalk his every move, while his dreams are plagued by visions of a 17th Century Witchfinder. When his father is abducted, Jake must face the terrible secrets kept by those closest to him and a shocking truth that will change his life forever . . .

Wolf by Gillian Cross. 
He came in the early morning, at about half past two. His feet padded along the balcony, slinking silently past the closed doors of the other flats. No one glimpsed the shadow flickering across the curtain or noticed the uneven rhythm of his steps, except Cassy. The following morning, Cassy is packed off with no explanation, to stay with her mother. But Cassy knows something is wrong – she's being followed. And the wolf who stalks her through her dreams, is much more dangerous – and real – than she realises.

I hope my Festive Fifteen has been of interest, and that there are a couple of titles you've not read, but might try out as a result. Thanks to everyone who left comments and suggestions of their own. 

For more book recommendations, check out Candy Gourlay's blog and the comments that follow it.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Festive Fifteen - Best Books of 2010 (Part 2)

Well, the goose is well and truly cooked, the pudding ignited and devoured, the base of the tree just a barren land of pine needles and scraps of torn wrapping paper – can Christmas really be over, so soon? Not likely! I'll be wearing my paper crown until the first chimes of Auld Lang Syne.

So, pour yourself another sherry, crack the seal on that tin of Roses and enjoy the second part of my Festive Fifteen favourite reads of 2010. (Part One can be viewed here, if you missed it.)

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. 
Daisy is sent from New York to England to spend a summer with cousins. She's never met anyone quite like them before and, as a dreamy English summer progresses, Daisy finds herself caught in a perfect timeless bubble. But their lives are about to explode. War breaks out – a war none of them understands, or really cares about, until it lands on their doorstep.

No Worries by Bill Condon. 
Brian Talbot, seventeen, virgin, high school dropout, nightshift worker at the local dairy, in love. When life is kicking you down, you need to kick back, but when your old man lives in the shed in the backyard, and your mum has problems of her own, that's not always easy. Sometimes though, you just gotta hang in there – you never know what might happen.

That Eye, The Sky by Tim Winton. 
When Ort's father is seriously injured in a car crash, his isolated outback world is thrown into disarray. As he, his sister, mother and grandmother are struggling to come to terms with what has happened, a stranger appears in their midst. Preaching God’s word, Henry Warburton’s unexpected arrival seems eerily prescient – and Henry quickly makes himself indispensable. But Ort is suspicious – who is Henry really and what does he want with them?

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick. 
It's 1910. In a cabin north of the Arctic Circle, in a place murderously cold and desolate, Sig Andersson is alone, except for the corpse of his father – and then there's a knock at the door. 
As an extraordinary story of gold dust and gold lust unwinds, Sig's thoughts turn more and more to his father's Colt revolver, hidden in the storeroom – a revolver just waiting to be used.

Road of the Dead by Kevin Brooks. 
Late one night, two brothers learn that their sister has died in the worst way imaginable. She's found, strangled, in a desolate place hundreds of miles from their East London home. Ruben, though younger, is the smarter of the two, with a gift for getting into other people's hearts; Cole is a devil's angel who doesn't care if he lives or dies. Together, they retrace Rachel's final journey to an end neither of them anticipated.

Right … who's had the last Hazel Whirl then? Come on, it's no use hiding the wrapper …

Friday, 24 December 2010

Calvin and Hobbes Christmas Cake

This year's Christmas Cake – lovingly created six weeks ago by my youngest and I. This is our third attempt at making our own cake, with varying degrees of success it must be admitted. This time we're trying the Halsey School 1972 House Craft Christmas Cake recipe – copied from her original school exercise book by a friend of mine. We've been administering a fortnightly double tablespoon of brandy – so fingers crossed it will be a good one. 

My lad's favourite part of the process is the always the decoration, and this year he wanted to pay homage to Bill Watterson's brilliant Calvin and Hobbes

Seems a shame to cut into really …
Merry Christmas.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Festive Fifteen - Best Books of 2010 (Part 1)

In honour of its being Christmas and in memory of the late great John Peel I thought I’d compile a Festive Fifteen list of books I’ve enjoyed most this year.

(What follows isn’t a chart – just an alphabetical list.)

Artemis Fowl and the Atlantis Complex by Eoin Colfer. 
Criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl has summoned an elite group of fairies to Iceland. But when he presents his invention to save the world from global warming, he seems different. Something terrible has happened to him – Artemis Fowl has become nice. And now the subterranean city of Atlantis is under attack from vicious robots and nice Artemis cannot fight them. Can fairy ally Captain Holly Short get the real Artemis back before the mysterious robots destroy the city and every fairy in it?

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd. 
Digging for peat in the mountain with his Uncle Tally, Fergus finds the body of a child, and it looks as if she’s been murdered. As Fergus tries to make sense of the mad world around him – his brother on hunger-strike in prison, his growing feelings for Cora, his parents arguing over the Troubles, and him in it up to the neck, blackmailed into smuggling mysterious packages across the border – a little voice comes to him in his dreams, and the mystery of the bog child unfurls.

Catch Us If You Can by Catherine MacPhail. 
Rory and his grandad only have each other. But that's fine – they can manage. But then the fire happens, and Rory is told that grandad needs to go into a home, and that he will be fostered. So they go on the run together – a real adventure like something out of the war movies Grandad is always going on about –  but how will it end?

Exposure by Mal Peet. 
Revered as a national hero, married to the desirable Desmerelda and cherished by the media, soccer star, Otello, has it all. But a sensational club transfer sparks a media frenzy, and when he is wrongly implicated in a scandal, the footballer’s life turns into a tragic spiral of destruction. South America’s top sports journalist, Paul Faustino, witnesses the power of the media in making and breaking people's lives.

Freak The Mighty by Rodman Philbrick. 
Max is used to being called Stupid, and he is used to everyone being scared of him – on account of his size and looking like his dad. Kevin is used to being called Dwarf, and he is used to everyone laughing at him – on account of his size and being some cripple kid. But Greatness comes in all sizes, and together Max and Kevin become Freak the Mighty and walk high above the world … for a while, at least. 

More to follow …

I always like personal book recommendations which is why I thought I’d share my list. It would be great to hear about other people’s favourite reads of 2010, so please leave a comment with your book(s) of the year below.

Finally, a very Merry Christmas one and all, and many thanks for your support this year. Hope to see you again in 2011.

Best wishes

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Breakfast Poem of the Week - Ready Salted by Ian McMillan

Mornings are fairly frantic affairs in our house – cats to feed, PE kits to find and sandwiches to make … but if I do manage to sit down long enough to grab a bowl of cereal, I sometimes have a leaf through one of my poetry books. Most of the poems are short enough to read in the time it takes to eat and I like starting the day with some words in my head.

I found this one last week and it made me laugh, so I thought I'd share it. I was expecting something to happen, but still wasn't prepared for the ending. Brilliant stuff.

Ready Salted by Ian McMillan

Nothing else happened
that day.

Nothing much, anyway.

I got up, went to school,
did the usual stuff.

Came home, watched telly,
did the usual stuff.

Nothing else happened
that day,

nothing much, anyway,

but the eyeball in the crisps
was enough.

copyright Ian McMillan

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Why libraries are important

For the want of a library, a book was lost.
For the want of a book, a reader was lost.
For the want of a reader, a story was lost.
For the want of a story, empathy was lost.
For the want of empathy, understanding was lost.
For the want of understanding, an idea was lost.
For the want of an idea, a future was lost.
For the want of a future, everything was lost.
And all for the want of a library.

Please take a moment to read the following thoughts on the future of our libraries:

Alan Gibbons
Candy Gourlay and Teri Terry
KM Lockwood
Keren David
Jon Mayhew
Nick Cross
Philip Ardagh
Bryony Pearce
Lucy Coats
Kathryn Evans
Nina Killham
Sarwat Chadda
Nicky Schmidt
Voices for the Library
Mike Brownlow
Julie Day

Finally, this inspiring post by Mary Hoffman, who has been campaigning for AND SAVING libraries for over twenty years.

For a full list of UK libraries under threat, see Public Libraries News

Friday, 26 November 2010

Editor vs Writer – Letting go of your book.

An excuse to thumb through my thesauruses and maybe drool a little.

I was never going to win. A tug of war between editor and writer, with my manuscript in-between. 
Editor: "It's ready. I want it!"
Writer: "But if I could just look at the end of that fifth chapter again, I'm sure I could make it better."
Editor: "It's fine as it is. Now LET GO!"
I'm sure tickling is against the rules in a tug of war – not that it makes any difference,
deep down I knew she was right.

You can always do more, but that doesn't mean you should. It is widely accepted that the secret to good writing is rewriting, but there is a point where you have to stop and let go. As Marcus Sedgwick put it when I saw him speak recently, "When you find yourself moving commas around, the book is probably finished!" 

The trouble is, I enjoy the editing process, the craft of it. I love playing with sentences and the rhythm of the words. It provides an excuse to thumb through my thesauruses and maybe drool a little. That's when I have to remind myself that the primary function of writing is to tell a story. Of course we should try to do it well, with style and colour, but the words themselves aught to remain invisible. When you're reading a book and you start noticing the writing, it often means you've lost the story.

For me, the hardest part of this final edit was the simple act of reading the entire manuscript again. When I sat down to start, I couldn't do it! All I saw was words and sentences – the story was lost to me. Thankfully, my eleven-year-old son came to my rescue. He asked if I would read Fifteen Days without a Head to him as a bedtime story. After a shaky, surprisingly nervous start, I found it worked. Reading the book to him, allowed me to see it as a story again. 

I often read out loud when I'm writing. (Members of my family comment that they frequently hear me muttering in the loft on their way to the toilet.) I find it useful in identifying what's wrong with a certain passage. I'm not sure why it works, except that I believe writing has a lot more in common with music than we realise. Sentences have a rhythm and flow, and can sound almost out of tune if there's something wrong. 

Letting go of Fifteen Days wasn't easy, but I'm happy now. Glad that the story is further along its journey to becoming a book. It also means I am free to concentrate on all the other voices in my head, the ones with a new story to tell, at the start of another journey which will no doubt end with another tug of war.


Tim Bowler, a man who certainly knows a thing or two about how to craft a story – discusses the connections between writing and music in his Bolthole Bulletin, here.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Ten things I learned at the SCBWI Conference

Just returned from a great weekend in Winchester at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference. Here are ten things I learned:

1. "We have an obligation to tell a story." Marcus Sedgwick.

2. "Don't be shy – be famous!" Sarah McIntyre's head is a scary, but entertaining place to be.

3. There is much fun to be had watching SCBWI Greenaway and Carneige Talent battle it out in public …

4. "When you find yourself moving commas around, the book is probably finished and ready to go." Marcus Sedgwick.

5. Everybody knows Nick Cross. No, seriously, everybody!

6. "Sidekicks are really handy!" Lynne Chapman. Author, illustrator who rocks big time and provided great entertainment and inspiration to the Sunday afternoon crowd of fun-fatigued delegates.

7. Books are here to be devoured. Dinosaurs with lasers – nutritious and delicious!

8. "We are makers!" David Fickling – a publishing legend. Shown here providing words of wisdom and further proof that bow ties are cool!

 9. Candy Gourlay is a multi-talented, supremely generous human being – but lethal with a lens!

10. Collect a couple of hundred children's writers and illustrators together in a room and it will fill you with a great sense of well-being and hope for the future.

Don't take my word for it. Check out these other top ten words of wisdom from:

Nick Cross
Katie Dale
Keren David
Sue Eves
KM Lockwood
Sarah McIntyre
Ellen Renner

More to follow …

Friday, 5 November 2010

CILIP Carnegie 2011 longlist announced

I was delighted to see some of my favourite books of this year on the 2011 CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medal longlists. It was especially pleasing to see debuts by Gregory Hughes and fellow SCBWI members, Candy Gourlay and Keren David gain such deserved recognition.
Nominations also go to David Almond, Ian Beck, Kevin Brooks, Gillian Cross, Geraldine McCaughrean, Nicola Morgan, Patrick Ness, Philip Reeve, Meg Rosoff, Louis Sachar, Ali Sparkes and Sarah McIntyre.
See the full lists here.

Friday, 29 October 2010

National Novel Writing Month

Bore Da! A very enjoyable and productive week's work here in Wales. I'm going to miss this place and my makeshift writing nook in the loft, with its Heath Robinson upturned drawer desk.

I can't believe it's nearly November – which by the way, just happens to be National Novel Writing Month. I won't be joining the fun myself, but for anyone struggling to get going on a story, or finding it difficult to sustain the long haul of writing a novel – the NaNoWriMo project might be worth a look.

Participants sign up and begin writing on November 1st, and the aim is to complete a 50,000 word novel by midnight November 30th. Don’t panic, this is a first draft only – not a carefully edited and crafted manuscript ready for publication. Described as a "fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing", the point of NaNoWriMo, is to support you in getting those 50,000 words down. It’s amazing how good it feels once the story is out of your head and onto paper. Even if a lot of what you’ve written is rubbish – and most first drafts are, but without them, you’d never get to the finely crafted final manuscript.

Writing can be a lonely business. Most writers find themselves typing away in solitude, often late at night or early in the morning (especially those of us with day jobs!) By signing up to NaNoWriMo, you won’t feel quite so alone, knowing that all around the world, other participants are going through the same joys and sorrows of producing the Great Frantic Novel.

Visit the NaNoWriMo website for further details and to sign-up. Good luck and happy writing!

Friday, 22 October 2010


This has to be the best name for a book festival ever! Which means if you're anywhere near Chester next week, you have to check it out. There's a whole host of events running all through half-term week, including author appearances from Steve HartleyHarriet GoodwinJon Mayhew and Sarwat Chadda among others. Full details here. For those in the south, there is a great day of book related workshops at the Crystal Palace Children's Book Festival tomorrow (Oct 23rd). Then on Friday 29th, The Chainsaw Gang will be rampaging to the Norwich Forum to discuss horror and young adult fiction. Just sorry I won't be able to make it. I'll be heading off to the Welsh mountains to work on some edits and continue my search for the ultimate Bara Brith. Have fun. 

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Finding the motivation

A writer friend of mine, about to embark on another re-write of his current manuscript, posed the following question to a group of fellow authors: What techniques do you use to motivate yourselves when you're rewriting the same book for the umpteenth time? How do you summon up the enthusiasm to do a great job rather than just churning out the words? It’s a good question.

Most published authors go through many revisions before a manuscript is ready. Each time, the book gets better – the story clearer and stronger. It’s a myth that great writers get it right first time. When asked why he re-wrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times, Ernest Hemingway replied that he was simply “Getting the words right.”

But it can be hard, if you’re revisiting a scene for the third, fourth or even the thirty-ninth time, to stay fresh and do a great job, rather than just churning out the words. If I find myself in this position then the first thing I have to do is ignore the impulse to just get it done and out of the way. To do this, I tell myself that the scene I’m revising is actually a new idea – a short story perhaps – and try to conjure that tingle of excitement of something fresh waiting to be told. Not easy, but I've found a few tricks that help. 

First I try to forget what I’ve done before and see if there’s a way I can tell the story from a different angle. I need to find a way to entertain me while I write, because a leaden hand produces dead words. Maybe I can set the scene in a different location, somewhere more unusual, funnier, scarier. Is there anything else that could happen to add a bit of life and colour? A cameo character or background action that will add an dash of the exotic, an element of danger, or humour. If two characters need to have a conversation in order to move the action along, can this conversation occur in a different way? Via mobile phones with intermittent reception perhaps, or scribbled notes passed under the glance of an adversary, or written in the steam on a window, or even shouted through a toilet door? 

The key is to find something that will re-awaken my interest, my excitement in the scene, so I can't wait to tell it. Usually all I need is something to get me started. Once the words begin to flow, the story takes over and if I’m lucky, the magic happens. 

Failing that, a bribery/reward system works a treat. A large pot of tea and one shortbread finger (substitute your own guilty pleasure here) for every 500 words works for me.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Doing it for the kids

A great article by Ellen Renner on the importance of getting out there and meeting readers … 
The one thing that children's writers need is readers. And so it seems logical to me that promoting children's love of reading should be one of our primary concerns. If not for altruistic reasons, then purely out of self interest. Because no one should take it for granted that readers will always be out there.
Read the full article here.

A couple of other links that may be of interest:
The Guardian is putting together a new website dedicated to young readers and is asking for suggestions of what readers would like to see on the site.
Fans of Neil Gaiman's award winning The Graveyard Book might be interested to know that you can watch videos of the author reading the entire book on his website.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Illustrated Voices

An historic day, watching the Chilean miners being brought to the surface one by one, like something from an episode of Thunderbirds – amazing stuff.

On a more mundane, but personally gratifying level – I found out earlier that the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) are holding a competition to illustrate  the stories featured in the 2010 Undiscovered Voices anthology. Hopefully a couple of artists will choose Fifteen Days without a Head – it would be fascinating to see someone else's interpretation of the story.

The artwork will be displayed and judged at this year's SCBWI Conference and the deadline for submissions is November 6th, with a place on the Illustrator Masterclass as the prize. Full details here. I'll post some of the illustrations next month, if I can get the artist's permission. In the meantime, my gang here have had a go.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Municipal Darwinism strikes Norfolk!

On a recent trip to the east coast I found this – an entire city on wheels! Not quite a traction city of Mortal Engines proportions I admit, but it did remind me of the great quartet of books by Philip Reeve. For a glimpse into the original notes that sparked the birth of a new world, check out Philip Reeve's blog. There's also a good interview with the man himself on Thirst for Fiction. (Thanks to Jabberworks for the nod.) More photos of the strange and beautiful to follow … I expect.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Rockoholic's Anonymous

I had a good day at the Bath Children's Literature Festival last week. A very useful Write Team workshop with Helen Cross on authors working in schools. I also managed to catch CJ Skuse reading from her second novel Rockoholic. It's the story of a girl who accidentally kidnaps her favourite rock-star. The short excerpt she read was brilliant – a great idea, sharply written and very funny. It's out in March and I can't wait to get a copy. 
As for stumbling back through my own rock history – my search for the Hub Club proved fruitless. Maybe it was for the best. They say you should never go back.