28 July 2009

Book of the Week (24): “The Man from Pomegranate Street” by Caroline Lawrence

This is the final volume in Caroline Lawrence’s popular and successful Roman Mysteries series. Being that, the seventeenth book, you might be forgiven for expecting something slightly less exciting that its predecessors, something all about tying up loose ends and less about creating something whole and new. Well, if you start this book with those expectations, well, you are in for such a good surprise! This certainly is a book that ties up the long-running series neatly – though not comprehensively as enough ends are left dangling to make you wonder about these children as they grow up – but it is also a fast-paced, exciting story all on its own.

Flavia and her friends, Jonathan, Nubia and Lupus, are still working on events that were started in previous books, but now they are also searching for Jonathan and Flavia in particular is determined to find out the truth. The truth at any cost… There’s hardly time to take a breath here, as the friends race against time, against the new emperor – and the emperor’s torturer…

This series doesn’t disappoint. From the early days of The Thieves of Ostia (first published in 2001!), the books work their way across the Roman world, giving tantalising glimpses into how people lived and magically bringing the past to vibrant life. There are no dry history lessons here. In fact the history here is the opposite of dry, with very little left to the imagination about how terrifying it would have been to live in an age where painful death was an everyday reality and where slavery meant that any one person could be completely controlled by another. But for all the carefully portioned out history, it is the story that is paramount – and over the seventeen books Caroline Lawrence has grown as a storyteller, and as a writer. This final book ends the series triumphantly.

So, if you haven’t read the books – go read. Look at the website too as it is one of the best around; full of facts, trivia and hints about how to become a writer. There’s Caroline’s blog there too, which tells of her life, book events and many travels. If you want further explorations online, try this BBC site which is based on the TV series.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

• Try one of Caroline’s own inspirations: The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories by Carolyn Keene.
• Or for more history, try the harder but completely wonderful Roman stories by Rosemary Sutcliff – start with The Eagle of the Ninth.
• Or simply go for something else as fast-paced with Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant.

The Roman Mysteries in order:
  • The Thieves of Ostia
  • The Secrets of Vesuvius
  • The Pirates of Pompeii
  • The Assassins of Rome
  • The Dolphins of Laurentum
  • The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina
  • The Enemies of Jupiter
  • The Gladiators from Capua
  • The Colossus of Rhodes
  • The Fugitive from Corinth
  • The Sirens of Surrentum
  • The Charioteer of Delphi
  • The Slave-girl from Jerusalem
  • The Beggar of Volubilis
  • The Scribes from Alexandria
  • The Prophet from Ephesus
  • The Man from Pomegranate Street

20 July 2009

Book of the Week (23): "Nation" by Terry Pratchett

Mark Kermode, the film reviewer on Radio 5, has been complaining about the recent batch of super-hero films, because they spend the first half of the film looking into the hero's inner torment, before remembering that they're Hollywood blockbusters and reverting to robots hitting each other for the last hour. Terry Pratchett's Nation suffers from much the same problem. This is the most thoughtful book that he has written. Our hero's struggle with theological questions throughout the book is fascinating, particularly because, as we expect in Pratchett's books, when questions are asked of the gods, they answer. Is it easier to believe in a god when you can have a chat with him? Not necessarily. In this context, the big set-piece action sequences seem a bit out of place. I feel a bit bad splitting hairs like this, because it is a terrific read. I just wish Pratchett had felt he could get away with reducing the action slightly to concentrate on the development of the main character's beliefs, which were at the heart of the story.

Recommended by Anthony Reuben

  • More theology? Well, Big Questions anyway, along with dry wit and a great anti-hero... Try C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters: Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil.
  • More adventure on an island? Try The Lost Island of Tamarind by Nadia Aguiar.
  • Or more Pratchett? Try all of his books really. The Discworld series begins with The Colour of Magic, or you could head for the riotous fun of Only You Can Save Mankind.

13 July 2009

Book of the Week (22): "Harris Finds His Feet" by Catherine Rayner

Harris the hare is upset that his feet are so big, so his Grandad sets out to explain to him how useful big feet can be. He shows Harris how they can help you hop very high, dig holes and run very fast.

All this is really an excuse to look at themes of youth and age, the process of growing up, and the journey through life.

Harris Finds His Feet has just won the Kate Greenaway Medal, the UK's major picture book prize for outstanding illustrations. And the illustrations are beautiful indeed. Harris is exquisitely drawn, so that he bristles with personality – you take one look at him and see immediately that he’s gangly and young and inquisitive and playful and not very co-ordinated.

I find it impossible to get Guess How Much I Love You out of my head when I read the book (young, naïve hare in conversation with older, wiser hare relative). But after the first few pages, the story does leap away from that well-known title into its own territory.

Ultimately, I found the illustrations more deeply satisfying than the story. Catherine Rayner is enormously talented and I reckon she’s going to get better and better.

Recommended by Susan Reuben

12 July 2009

8-12 round-up

I've done a summer round-up of recent books for 8-12s (or thereabouts) which ran in the Indy on Sunday today. To find out what I included, you can read it here.

I'm pleased with my choices, but was struck by how very few really good stand-alone novels there were for readers of this age. A couple of very good debuts (at least one of which has a sequel on the way), but otherwise it's mostly new series or additions to old, sometimes very long-running series, and the like. So what did I miss?


PS This in contrast particularly, I think, with the new teen books that are out there - if you've read my recent posts on the Booktrust prize you'll know there are a lot of new stand-alone novels for teens that I rate very highly indeed.

07 July 2009

Book of the Week (21): “What I Saw and How I Lied” by Judy Blundell

The first thing that attracts about this book is the cover; matt, black, with a beautiful girl emerging from the darkness. It looks intriguing, more like a poster for a 1940s film noir starring Veronica Lake than a teen book. The cover holds more than that image though, for if you open the outer cover to reveal the inner one, there is another portrait, this time of an older woman – one very glamorous, very sultry; a blonde Ava Gardner, all tighly corseted passion. Yes, it really is a cover to make you pick up the book. And then all you have to do is start reading, because once you start, you won’t want to stop.

Set just after WWII, this is the story of Evie, her returned G.I. father, her glamorous yet unhappy mother, and a journey they take to the heat and humidity of Summertime Florida where they meet the filmstar-gorgeous Peter – and where their lives unravel.

You can read this book for the wonderful characters, for the mystery, for the lightly-written period detail that makes you feel as if you know the time inside out, or you can read it to know more about Evie, the girl on the cusp of being a woman, the girl who lies, to herself and others – and who is lied to by everyone. All of these reasons make it a fantastic read – all of them combined make it a fabulous one.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

• Try some of Judy Blundell’s own recommendations – read about them in the interview that follows in the next blog entry.


(The following interview appears, in a slightly different form, on Nikki Gamble's fabulous WriteAway site)

There are few books published in the last year that have left me quite as breathless as one I read a few weeks ago. What I Saw and How I Lied arrived on my doormat, as many books do, and I would probably have put it on my ‘to be read one day’ pile except that the publicist, Alyx Price, had added a hand-written note that simply demanded that I read this brilliant book. Well, I don’t often get notes of any kind in with books sent for review, so I thought OK, and I read - and was so glad that I did! Even though the book was in proof form, written by an author I’d never heard of, it was the words that grabbed me from page one – and the characters. Completely consumed by the book I read on until it was done; then sat there stunned. How could this be a first novel? How could the book be over? How come it wasn’t a twenty book series so I could follow this girl through all her life?

Well, the answer to the first was found by reading the notes. Judy Blundell is no first time author – though this is the first book to have her own name on the cover. Instead she’s an established writer of tie-in novels, and has used various pseudonyms but mostly that of Jude Watson. Well that explained one thing, the assuredness of the plotting. But the others? Well, what I really wanted to do was talk to Judy Blundell, to be able to meet this woman who clearly was a genius… and, as Fate sometimes allows, giving you the things you want most, I found quite randomly that I was able to meet her. In fact I invited her to the school where I work as librarian and got two boys to show her around before all of us, Judy, her delightful daughter, the boys and Alex from Scholastic sat down for tea. Then, with the heat-wave blistering the air around us, Judy and I sat under some trees and talked.

Leonie Flynn (LF): As Judy Blundell – your own name – and as Jude Watson you’ve written a great many books. Did you always want to be a writer?

Judy Blundell (JB): Yes. But I was a very timid person and I didn’t always write – or at least, write and show anyone. I kept it to myself, convinced that I couldn’t be a writer as writers were so far above me!

LF: Ah, yes – I think we all believed writers were gods!

JB: Exactly. It’s different now, but back then – before the internet – writers were people to be in awe of.

LF: What made you change your mind?

JB: I had a full-time job, but I was writing an adult novel – not one that I was going to show anyone. I would get up really early and work on my writing then head off to the job that paid me money. Luckily it was at a publisher, and I found myself writing tie-in novels. Writing on demand – I was good at deadlines, didn’t make a fuss, so people came back and asked for more. I was Jude Watson and people liked my books – I thought that was enough.

LF: Is there a security in writing behind the mask of a pseudonym?

JB: Certainly. I recently spoke at a Virginia Woolf conference, and in order to prepare for it I re-read A Room of One’s Own – which is still a great book, fresh as paint. I then remembered reading about Jane Austen and how her parlour door had a creaky hinge that she never wanted fixed so that she could hide her work if someone came into the room… and I thought, yes, those pseudonyms were my creaky hinge. I could hide behind them. It’s hard to put yourself out there, and it took me an extraordinarily long time to have the confidence. It was really my long-time editor, David Levithan who persuaded me. Even on this book! I got the galleys and panicked. I called him up and I said, David, something went wrong, my name is on the book – we have to change it. And he said - Oh, didn’t we talk about that? And bad as my memory is I’d’ve remembered if we had!

In the end he was the one who said, this book is different. No hiding. Not Jude, this is Judy.

LF: Good for him! However good your ‘Jude’ novels are, the fact that the body of what’s happening isn’t yours, it distances you as a person, and I think your writing here is quite different. In some ways, it’s a difficult book to review, because it feels like a first novel – you’re speaking from your soul here.

JB: It almost is a first novel. It’s in a strange sort of place.

LF: What made you decide to write your own story, rather than your own story that riffs off someone else’s world building?

JB: Well, I’d say there were a couple of different things that came together, and one of them was the actual impetus for the book itself, which was waking up in the middle of the night with the image of Evie, this girl, sitting in a hotel lobby by herself playing solitaire – a scene that actually never made it into the book – but that was my first image, and my stories often coalesce around an image. I’d like to say that I woke up the next morning and started working on it, but that wasn’t the case. I was writing as Jude Watson, on Star Wars books at the time and that felt like my real job. But then David Levithan took me out to lunch and he just leaned across the table to me and said - when are you going to write something for me? And because of my writing life my first response was – sure, what do you need?

LF: As in which new movie needed a tie-in book?

JB: Exactly. But he replied – No. Just write something. So I thought about the girl in the hotel and I said - Well I happen to have this idea… and I told him about the girl and he said – Go, bring it to me. It was very generous, and freeing. Scholastic too – they said bring us anything, any age level, any topic. Which was perfect as WISAHIL is not a straight mystery and it’s not straight suspense but they didn’t care that it went outside of category.

LF: A friend of mine described WISAHIL as a cross between Bonjour Tristesse and Key Largo – does that fit the bill?

JB: Oh, yes, I’ll take that one! It’s really funny as I thought a lot about Bonjour Tristesse. Isn’t that bizarre? Not in terms of this book, but that the world was ready for a new Bonjour Tristesse. So, what do you know!

LF: Serendipity?

JB: :Laughs:

LF: WISAHIL has won awards in America, did you expect that?.

JB: Yes, it won the National Book Award – the biggest literary award that’s given by writers. And no, I didn’t expect anything like that. It came as a complete surprise!

LF: In the UK there is a divide between children’s books and ‘real’ books, and one of the things I was most pleased about with the UK edition of WISAHIL was the cover – there is no adult in the world who is going to look and that and think – that’s only a kids’ book.

JB: I was very pleased with the cover, the Film Noir-ish images are perfect.

LF: Did you have any influence on that?

JB: No. That was the designers at Scholastic – they really did a good job. Though the other trouble is that in the States adults have to go into the children’s section to find my book – and not many adults wander in there looking for a book for themselves.

LF: Let’s hope it gets shelved by a lot of very new booksellers who won’t realise it’s a children’s book – and then they’re going to put it in the adult section too.

JB: Well, I think it’s time for some YA fiction to be cross-marketed, really aggressively, not just through happenstance.

LF: Maybe with your next book? Will it be a sequel?

JB: No. I think that one day Evie ends up in a good place.

LF: She’s so strong at the end…but whether it’s a happy strong?

JB: Well, she’ll always have a terrible burden, won’t she? One of the impetus for writing the book was the notion of someone who you love lying to you, and what a terrible strain that it. In a friendship it’s bad enough – how do you live with it, what happens to the friendship. And I though what would make it even worse was if it was a family member. One of your parents.

LF: Everyone lies. It’s one of the things I most admired about the book – the way you skilfully deal with deceit of all kinds. So, if no more Evie – what?

JB: Something quite different. I don’t really like to talk too much about anything that I’m working on, but I can say that it’s about showgirls, and it’s set a few years after this one. I found out that very young girls were leaving home and ending up dancing on the stage, and that intrigued me.

LF: First 1947 now something a few years later? Curious… what attracts you about that time?

JB: I think I’m attracted to times of transition. That period in particular because there was such a dichotomy between appearance and reality. The post war period in the States was so different to here. Rationing was over, the G.I. bill was sending servicemen to college and letting them buy houses. They started having babies and it’s seen as a time of great optimism, but once I really started reading books written during that time I realised it wasn’t all like that. And through the books I became intrigued by the movies of the time, especially Film Noir – which influenced me a lot. The literature too. James Jones, who isn’t really read much anymore, is particularly bleak. And there’s a book called Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Hobson which is about anti-Semitism in an America that had apparently just fought a war to eradicate it. Norman Mailer was starting to write. So on one side you had this whole strain of dark writing and movies, but if you look at the magazines everyone is smiling! The colours were bright, the New Look skirts huge, the dances fast and fun. That dichotomy is what gets me. It was all about pushing the effects of the war underneath. The magazines and newspapers were all about we did it, the war’s over – let’s get on with it. Optimism layered over what people seen and done.

LF: Papering over the horror?

JB: Sinking it in concrete! And for the women it was about what they had to give up. Peacetime made most women lose their independence. Bev quit a very independent life the day her husband came home.

LF: I’m curious, with the success of ‘Judy’, are you going to continue to write as ‘Jude’?

JB: Yes, I think I am. I had such fun with The 39 Clues, which is very big in the states (and which is another example of Scholastic being amazing). Rick Riordan worked on the structure, the overall arc, but within that we got so much freedom. They very carefully chose which writers that wanted and they handled all that - we just had to write the books. They’re great fun to write, like really intricate puzzles. I put on my boy hat and get plotting. It’s around that age that we lose boy readers, and I’m always looking for ways to keep boys reading – so one of the reasons I’d like to continue to write as Jude is because that’s so important to me. And it’s fun!

LF: Were you ever tempted to make The 39 Clues author yet a third pseudonym?

JB: J Blundell? (laughs) No not really – Jude was fine!

LF: I am always amazed at how writers can create so perfectly in worlds created by other writers – is there a secret?

JB: No, you just get immersed in the world of it.

LF: Do you have to like the TV series / movie first?

JB: No, no. I come to like it. I wasn’t a Star Wars geek in any shape or form, but I came to like and understand and appreciate it. And there’s so much freedom. All the early stories I wrote were about mentoring, while the later ones are about how you go on when your heart is broken, when your world has been destroyed – because all the Jedi are dead. So that was always in my mind.

LF: Are there any fans writing stories that spin off WISAHIL – have you looked online?

JB: You know, I haven’t. Now I might have to!

LF: Would you mind if they did?

JB: No, I’d be flattered! Actually, I need to get up to speed on that whole online writing issue. I have a website, but I hardly ever send my poor web-designer anything, and I still haven’t done my bio, and I’m meant to blog, and everyone else I know is Twittering… I just don’t have that kind of energy!

LF: Yet you write tirelessly!

JB: That’s different.

LF: Do you have any hints and tips for aspiring writers?

JB: Read. A lot. And write every day. Set your goal for what you can handle. I started out when I was working 9-5 and back then I set out to write two pages a day, five days a week. Just two pages. Sometimes I did more, but always two pages. Two pages a day doesn’t seem much, but some days it was!

Another tip that works for me is that I start writing first thing in the morning. Before I’ve seen the newspaper, before I even talk to my husband, before my child is up, I reach for my laptop – I don’t even have coffee. Sometimes just for half an hour before I start the day – a little ‘in’ at the beginning of the day.

LF: Do you have a room of your own?

JB: Sadly no. I have a corner of a porch that’s been made into a room and I share it with my daughter’s toys, but I’ve really learned to make do. And I love laptops, they’ve changed the way that I write. Before, I used to think that I needed silence and privacy and now I feel that I do some of my best writing in the evenings when music’s on and my husband is cooking and my child is popping in and out asking questions and yet I’m able to get work done. As if it takes the pressure off.

LF: One last question – are there any books you’ve loved recently?

JB: So many! I adored Sherman Alexie’s the Amazing Adventures of a Part Time Indian – it’s wonderful. M.T. Anderson’s books. Meg Rosoff. All sorts. At a slightly younger age, my favourites were Little Women, A Wrinkle in Time, Anne of Green Gables, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. And of course Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and all those series books, including the Hardy Boys. More recently my favourites have been Rebecca, Catch-22, Catcher in the Rye, Cat's Cradle, Ragtime, To Kill a Mockingbird, Act One, by Moss Hart (an autobiography of the playwright).


Judy Blundell’s wonderful What I Saw and How I Lied is available now. If you fancy trying her Jude Watson penned books, do read The 39 Clues: Beyond the Grave and some of the many Star Wars books. My own favourites are the Jedi Apprentice series.

01 July 2009

Teen Prize Longlist!

So here it is, the 2009 Booktrust Teenage Prize longlist! Released yesterday over on the Booktrust site.

The Ant Colony by Jenny Valentine (HarperCollins)
The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness (Walker)
Ausländer by Paul Dowswell (Bloomsbury)
Bloodchild by Tim Bowler (Oxford University Press)
Exposure by Mal Peet (Walker)
Furnace: Lockdown by Alexander Gordon Smith (Faber)
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury)
Numbers by Rachel Ward (Chicken House)
Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray (Definitions)
Solitaire by Bernard Ashley (Usborne)
Tales of Terror from the Black Ship by Chris Priestley (Bloomsbury)
Three Ways to Snog an Alien by Graham Joyce (Faber)
The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant (Puffin)

A very interesting list, if you ask me, with a huge range of strong books of all kinds. Funny books and serious books, little domestic books and big sweeping adventure books, lovely warm books and scarily chilling books… A really good ‘something for everyone’ sort of selection. And some absolutely superb writing. (Tho’ looking at it again now, it seems like quite a boy-ish list – I wonder what you think of that… Hmm…)

Anyway, thirteen titles in all, with the shortlist of six to be announced on September 21st.

Now that this is public, just wanted to mention a few books I loved during the reading process that sadly didn’t make it onto the longlist but I think deserve an extra plug:

Nation by Terry Pratchett
Rowan the Strange by Julie Hearn
Stolen by Lucy Christopher
The Traitor Game by B.R. Collins

All four are really terrific, and highly recommended. (Stolen and Nation will be among our soon-forthcoming Books of the Week, so you’ll be able to read more about them both on here shortly.)

And while I’m reminiscing, I also enjoyed… David Almond’s Jackdaw Summer; Adèle Geras’s Dido; Sally Gardner’s The Silver Blade; Linda Newbery’s Sandfather; Sarah Singleton’s Poison Garden; Damian Kelleher’s Life, Interrupted; Philip Reeve’s Fever Crumb and Gillian Philip’s Crossing the Line. Oh, and others, too...

Oh dear, so many books…