30 March 2009

Book of the Week (7): "Solar Nation" by Erica Blaney

In Solarnation, Solly and Lalune, and their entourage of bizarre animal, vegetable and mineral friends and supporters, battle to liberate the people of Clandoi from their miserable, dark and constrained lives. Solarnation continues and completes the story that started with Cybernation, Erica Blaney’s début novel. For those unaware of Cybernation, I’d recommend reading it first as it introduces the intricately woven raft of invention and convention which underpins the plot. It also introduces the two Solly and Lalune and the repressive caste system into which they were born, and which they flouted in order to forge a remarkable and lasting bond.

Erica Blaney has created a desperate world, a planet to which people escaped from the earth hundreds of years earlier, only to ruin it too. The harshness of the environment, and the cruelty and racism of those who rule is thrown into relief by the humanity of many of the characters, even those who aren’t in the least human. Blaney never writes off a character as being a single entity or force for good or bad; we hold our collective breath as they make their choices, and as they make their mistakes too.

This is an author with an extraordinarily rich visual imagination, and her writing is so fluid and evocative that even the most outrageous characters – Star the loyal snowcamel with his leathery umbrella or the appalling swag that ‘looked and stank like a pile of rotting carpets’ – are utterly believable. She is a fearless writer. In blinding one of the characters, she is able to evoke much more powerfully the extreme nature of her predicament. She’s also something of a romantic, so readers can’t help but hope for a good resolution, not only for the people of Clandoi but also for Solly and Lalune…

These books reward readers who pay attention, but Blaney knows just how to grab and hold that attention. Her accomplished, compelling storytelling is full of energy, linguistic invention and originality, and, when the time is right, she has a most appealing lightness of touch and humour.

[Yes, I'm biased - Erica Blaney is one of the writers represented by Fraser Ross Associates. But I have absolutely no qualms about recommending these books. Her initial submission was instantly appealing, and with Emily Thomas's support at Hodder, Cybernation and Solarnation are even better than I might have hoped!]

Recommended by Lindsey Fraser

  • For another thought-provoking take on defying racial divides, read Noughts and Crosses and its sequels by Malorie Blackman.
  • For more fast-paced sci-fi, try The Seventh Tide by Joan Lennon.
  • For more eco-politics hidden in a terrific story, Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle.
  • Or for more thrills, scares – and black humour, read The Black Book of Secrets by F.E. Higgins.

24 March 2009

Book of the Week (6): “The Lorax” by Dr Seuss

The Lorax was written close to 40 years ago, but you wouldn’t know it. Not only is the eco-message depressingly well suited to our time, but the story that conveys it feels as fresh as it possibly could – bright, alive, bouncing with energy and weirdness and all the things Dr Seuss always does so well. It’s one of the best eco-stories for young children – the best of all, perhaps – and to celebrate its don’t-waste-trees message HarperCollins have re-released it this week in a special, stunning edition printed on 100% recycled paper.

The tale is told by a Once-ler, whose face we never see (but his teeth sound grey when he talks). This unsavoury character describes the time he selfishly chopped down all the beautiful Truffula trees (which are softer than silk, and they have the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk…) in order to make utterly useless thneeds in the hope of getting rich. And even the impassioned and importunate Lorax – who speaks for the trees – can’t stop him.

This is both a lovely tribute to the beautiful natural things in the world, and a clear warning-call: we exploit it thoughtlessly at our peril. It’s pretty dark for a Dr Seuss story (and it’s pretty long for a Dr Seuss story, too – it’s for slightly older readers than his usual output); but the dark message is embodied in that same old Seuss world that is brightly, exhilaratingly mad and impossible, and yet will also feel completely accessible and familiar to so many readers. The snergelly hose and the gruvvulous glove, the Truffula tufts and the thneeds and the Snuvv – the Lorax, the Once-lers, the Brown Bar-ba-loots, the Humming-fish, crummies and Bar-ba-loot suits… These are all profoundly important things and they will all make sense to you when you read The Lorax; and they will matter to you a great deal. After all, it’s up to you now…

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

20 March 2009

Federation Conference

It's that time of year again, and the FCBG (Federation of Children's Book Groups) conference is upon us - this year it's to be held on the weekend of April 3rd-5th, exactly a fortnight hence. As usual they have an amazing programme - you can find a draft programme here; if you're into children's books, you'll be in heaven. This year's company includes Mike Rosen, Alan Gibbons, Patrick Ness, Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler, Meg Rosoff, Susan Gates, Linda Newbery, Tim Bowler and many others. Impressive or what?

I'm delighted to have been asked to chair a couple of events again this year - so I'll be with three first-time authors on the Saturday morning (Jenny Downham, Damian Kelleher and Michael Grant), and two seasoned veterans on the Sunday morning (Linda Newbery and Susan Gates). So that's my reading for the coming weeks taken care of! I've read Jenny and Damian's books already (Before I Die, and Life, Interrupted, respectively) and thought both were excellent, and will be interesting to discuss them alongside one another; and I'm currently immersed in Michael Grant's Gone, which is absolutely thrilling so far... And when that's done I get to catch up on as many of Linda's and Susan's that I've not yet read as I can get through between now and our event.

And two big boxes of new books arrived this morning for me to read - I'm having more than a little trouble keeping up...

Anyway - I recommend the FCBG conference very highly to anyone who can make it; it's two days of a really interesting, really fun, very collegial sort of atmosphere with brilliant people everywhere you look. Can't wait. I'll report back on it when it's done. And will have a couple of events at Hay to announce in the coming weeks too...


15 March 2009

Book of the Week (5): “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Music, sex, sexuality, peer-pressure, friendship, trust and love, these are the things that this book is made of. Oh, and the F-word… copiously!

Nick plays bass, and is the ‘only non-queer’ member of a queer-core band. He’s one of the broken-hearted, his life having been shredded by über-minx, Tris. Tris, who is also Norah’s non-friend… Though neither of them know this about the other, by accident it is Tris who brings Nick and Norah together – together in that they kiss before they talk, kissing as in pretending to be a couple. Though the pretending soon becomes more and, over the course of a long New York night, they meet, part, make up, kiss, part again, find each other, love, eat, listen and find that they like each other. Sometimes. Sometimes quite a lot.

As to how it ends? Well, this is a fairy tale, and one of New York, so you can probably guess and I’m not saying anything (but hey, I did finish the last page grinning).

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

  • For Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, David Levithan wrote Nick’s chapters and Rachel Cohn wrote Norah’s. They share once again in Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List.
  • David Levithan, on his own this time, wrote one of my favourite gay teen books; Boy Meets Boy.

11 March 2009

Book of the Week (4): "Dogs" by Emily Gravett

I think I’ve done very well letting three weeks go by before succumbing to the temptation to recommend the new Emily Gravett. You probably know her already from books like Orange Pear Apple Bear and Wolves, and all the things that made those books great are in evidence in her latest, Dogs. The simplicity, the economy, the humour, but above all those beautiful, warm and wittily expressive animal watercolours; each dog in this collection (slow dogs and fast dogs, big dogs and small dogs...) is drawn in lovely lines and given wonderfully characterful facial expressions – they’re as like real dogs as a picture can get, and will remind you of dogs you know, and indeed people you know too. It’s towards the younger end of Emily’s work, on a par with, say, Monkey and Me rather than Wolves or Meerkat Mail, with a very basic read-aloud text with a good gag at the end – but whatever your child may think of it, it’s really the pictures that you’ll love looking at yourself. Emily Gravett is an incredibly talented picture-book artist, and this is her at her best.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

02 March 2009

Book of the Week (3): "Malice" by Chris Wooding

I loved this book. You have probably not heard of Malice, but don’t let that put you off as Malice is a very clever combination of written words and brilliantly drawn comic, which combine to make up a really exciting and unusual adventure. The cover’s great too – with the evil Tall Jake resplendent in 3D.

The story is about a group of kids who find out about a certain, special comic that not only has ink that disappears after two days but which – if you speak a special chant – will kidnap you, stealing you away to the world of the comic. A world which is just as real as ours – but much, much scarier… Such a story couldn’t be true, could it? But one of the kids disappears. And reappears as a new character in the comic! Can his friends rescue him, or will they all too become nothing more than drawings on a page?

I would recommend this book for anyone over ten, but especially people who are interested in comic books and who like non-stop action. If you think books are boring, then try reading this – and be proved wrong!

Recommended by Nat Philipps, age 12


• More books by Chris Wooding for certain; The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray is deeply scary, or try his wonderful, darkly gothic Poison which is about a girl searching for a lost sister.
• If you liked the combination of words and pictures, try Brian Selznick’s intriguing The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
• There’s fewer pictures, but the ones there are are just as important, in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Or try his wonderful Coraline – about a girl who finds herself being drawn into an horrific other world.