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Given the typical state of our British summer, I've had plenty of time to read as opposed to doing all those summery things one ought to be doing. Like breathing fresh air. Or weeding the garden. Or yomping in the hills. So here's an update on my favourite reads of the past few months. Rainbow Rowell's beautiful Eleanor and Park and Phil Earle's Heroic are both excellent and will appeal to adult and YA readers alike. Eleanor and Park is a love story that had me blubbing and turning the pages in anticipation right up to the very end. In fact, I read the end several times, not quite believing the story was over. And especially over in THAT way. Thanks to the joy of Twitter I've asked the author for a sequel. Will potentially resort to bribery to force this to happen. That's how much I love it.
I've also read a couple of novels from the Orange Prize shortlist. Where'd You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple made me laugh out loud (huge respect for writers who can do this) as did A M Homes May We Be Forgiven. The latter is particularly clever and while both are satirical I think the depth and assured polish of Homes' novel might mean she takes the prize. Not that my opinion counts! I haven't yet read the others from the list - not sure I'm excited enough about the premise of Zadie Smith's NW to do so and whilst I'm a massive fan of Kate Atkinson, again, I'm not overly tempted. But we'll see. Another corker is Lionel Shriver's Big Brother. She writes so well about dysfunctional families and although I loathed almost every single one of her characters the novel was addictive, fascinating and riddled with the darkest humour.
As for my next book - yes I am writing it , and no I haven't finished. Writing "the dreaded second novel" really is as horrible as everyone tells you it will be! But I'm saving that story up for another post. Currently, my lips are sealed for fear of the jinx effect.
Click the link to see for yourself! The clip says it all...
So when I'm not trying to write novels, or when my children are at school, my other job is as an English teacher. Today we looked at a poem by Wendy Cope - On Finding an Old Photograph. It conveys Cope's feelings on discovering a picture of her father taken before she was born and is both beautiful and moving.
The beauty comes in the honesty, the laying of the self bare. There is nothing obscure or pretentious in the language Cope uses and this is why the emotion is so raw, I think. This is when literature really works, isn't it, when it creates connections between people who have never even met. It's amazing how human experience can be translated when given artistic form, be it as poetry, as music, theatre or prose - creating waves of emotion that spread through an audience. Reading Wendy Cope's poem made me think of my own ambivalent feelings about looking at pictures of my children when they were younger ( they still are pretty young, so we're only talking about a few years ago). I always get a huge lump in my throat and can't bear to watch the many, many films my husband made of those days. I suppose it's the feeling that time has passed and is passing, a time which you can never reclaim, a feeling which then becomes painfully present through those precious images.
Since it's International Women's Day I want to celebrate a few of the great female characters in fiction by exploring why I love them and why they're so memorable. Their authors too, many of whom are men.
Let's start with Chaucer's Wife of Bath. What a loud, loquacious lady she is, vividly described as "gat-toothed" (in medieval symbolism - a bit of a man-eater). With her red stockings and massive hat in the shape of a shield, she's a woman ready to take on the men. A survivor of domestic violence, she turns Janckyn's (husand number five) rhetoric back on him, ripping up his "Book of Wicked Wives" in the process and tells a fabulous story. Pretty radical, I think, even if she did fall for the wrong chap.
Moving on to Shakespeare, I can't help but admire the wickedness of Goneril and Regan. With a father like Lear, domineering, childish, petulant and narcissistic, is it any wonder they reduce his retinue from 100 to 50 to 25 and then to...1. Mind you, eye-gouging is a little too extreme even for my tastes and their evil is indisputable by the end of the play. So how about, if we're looking for a Shakespearean feminist hero, Beatrice from Much Ado. Witty, feisty, hugely loyal to her wronged cousin Hero, she won't love or marry just to fit in with society's expectations and only takes on Benedict on her own terms. Great character.
Then you've got to have a bit of Jane Austen. Fanny Price is a bit too pious for my liking, Emma Woodhouse a bit too spoilt. But Lizzy Bennet - can we fault her? She won't let anyone put her down, she sees through (eventually) vice and folly and is a loyal daughter and sister.
“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
Then there's Hardy's Tess. Oh, I love Tess. Her struggle to deal with Victorian hypocrisy, her incredible sensitivity, curious mixture of both humility and her pride and the cruelty meted out to her never fail to wring my heart. One of my favourite characters and novels ever.
“Because what's the use of learning that I am one of a long row only - finding out that there is set down in some old book somebody just like me, and to know that I shall only act her part; making me sad, that's all. The best is not to remember your nature and your past doings have been just like thousands' and thousands', and that your coming life and doings'll be like thousands' and thousands'.”
Another great female is Prue Sarn of Mary Webb's novel "Precious Bane". Like Rebecca in Black Heart Blue, Prue is marked out by her disfigurement - a harelip, the "bane" of the title. She is a character who battles against her brother, her circumstances and society and who ultimately triumphs. A wonderful, wonderful book and character.
Stand-out characters, noteworthy for their courage and indomitable spirit in more modern fiction include Katniss of The Hunger Games and then there's Harper Lee's Scout, L.M. Montgomery's Anne Shirley, and Dahl's Matilda. As a young reader I adored Tamora Pierce's Alanna series and the eponymous lead character. She dresses as a boy in order to achieve her dream of becoming a knight and goes through all kinds of adventures that test both her physical and emotional strength. But I suppose the character who stands out most to me is Celie of Alice Walker's The Colour Purple. The book is a fascinating study of the power women can find within themselves and from each other when faced with the most brutal circumstances. It's a must read.
This is a long list. I haven't even mentioned Hester Prynne, Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw, Pippi Longstocking. Hope they'll forgive me. If I haven't mentioned one of your favourites, feel free to scream.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
I'm so delighted that Black Heart Blue and my splendid editor, Amanda Punter, made the Branford Boase long-list. From the website: "The Branford Boase Award was set up to reward the most promising new writers and their editors, as well as to reward excellence in writing and in publishing. The Award is made annually to the most promising book for seven year-olds and upwards by a first time novelist." The short list will be published later in the spring.
Here's a link to the full list:
Here's a post about the abundance of beautiful books I received for Christmas.
First up Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is a great read, a chilling story full of mystery and suspense that had me intrigued from the very start. I love sick and twisted narrators and we certainly get one of those here. The first half of the novel is better than the second (I ended up almost laughing at one point when I think I was supposed to be either afraid or horrified) but I don't want to spoil it for anyone so won't go into any more detail here.
Next Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I actually received this for my Birthday, but it's not a quick read and I've been engrossed in Cromwell's machinations for about a month now. It's a wonderful book, fully deserving of its prizes, I think, and I love the feeling of immersing myself in the past Mantel so powerfully recreates (even if I get confused about who's who every so often.) Fantastic.
Next,The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber. Given to me by the same fantastic friend who bought me Wolf Hall for my Birthday, this is a brilliant story of a woman working the land in the Badlands of America in the early twentieth century. It has one of the most tense and gripping first chapters I've read in a long time and is beautifully written throughout. A must read.
I treated myself to Torn by Cat Clarke in the Kindle sale and was pleased I took a chance on an author I'd heard of but hadn't yet tried. Torn has a twisty plot, fascinating characters and relationships and is quite unputdownable. A great YA read.
Joyce Carol Oates is my literary idol. She can be relied upon to peer into the grotesque secrets of the human heart and send the reader reeling. The first story in this collection, "The Corn Maiden" is one of the most disturbing things I've ever read. And therefore I loved it.
Marissa is a beautiful, sweet, but slow 11-year-old. Judah, an older girl from the same school, has led Marissa to a secluded basement. Remaining an unaware hostage for days, Marissa grows weak as Judah prepares to sacrifice her to the Indian legend, the Corn Maiden (Goodreads blurb). Don't read this if you're of a sensitive disposition!
I have heaps left to read including Dare Me by Megan Abbot (very excited about this), So The Wind Won't Blow it All Away by Richard Brautigan (again, I'm desperate to start this), Dear Life by Alice Munro, Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth and a few others too. So 2013 is set to be a great year for reading. Hope you got some fantastic books in your stockings too.
One of the nicest things about being published is hearing from enthusiastic readers. A couple of weeks ago, Beth Kahil from Charles Thorp Comprehensive School got in touch to tell me that the school reading group had read Black Heart Blue and that they'd loved discussing it. She also sent me her own review and those of some of her students. So, I'm posting some of their comments here - thank you so much Annie, Sam and Beth! You made my day.
I was a bit tentative when I first started this book because it is very dark and mysterious but I was hooked from the first few pages! I could not put it down! This book is emo-tional. At times I felt like crying along with Hephzi and I ached inside for Rebecca. Their Mother was too filled with hatred to care what happened to them and their Father was even worse. I got so angry at the Father because the twins didn’t deserve any of what they got. The book is written so that not every tiny detail is explained but that’s good because you sort of got it anyway. Every time the girls were beaten I felt like I had been hit, their pain was so excellently described. As disturbing as this book is, it is also one of the best books I have ever read.
Annie Dab - Year 8
If I were making a mixtape for Black Heart Blue, here are some of the tunes that'd be on it. Extremely wonderful, sometimes melancholic, songs that I love.
First up, The Black Heart Procession, "When you Finish Me". Gives me chills. Imagining Rebecca at Hephzi's funeral. Cold. White. Alone.
Read on for more...
I just wrote a blog post and lost it. It was all about reviews and how you can't get uptight when someone thinks your book's rubbish. But now it's gone and it was too boring to rewrite. So here, instead, is a competition.
I read in a blog tips thing, when I was having a bout of Catholic guilt about my useless blogging ways, that one's blog should feature pictures, so here's a photo. It took all my computer know-how to get this thing uploaded so don't say I don't try.
Read on for humiliating photo/chance to win fabulous prize.
I'm absolutely delighted that Black Heart Blue has been included on the longlist for this year's Carnegie award. Thank you to my nominator!
The longlist is huge and is testament to the number of great children's books being published today; if you're looking for some fabulous reading then have a browse through. I haven't read all the nominated novels (actually, only a few!) so can't make many recommendations. Top of my list at the moment, though, is David Almond's True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean, but this may yet change as I read through more of the longlist.
Read on to see the entire list...
Yesterday evening I was lucky enough to be The Guest of Honour (something I have never been before and am delighted to be described as any time you like) at St Mary's School in Cambridge for their inaugral Creative Writing Competition awards ceremony. It just so happens that I teach at this lovely school, but last night the addition of some fabulous children from primary schools in the region made the evening extra special. There were a huge number of entries and some impressive writing. Meeting so many enthusiastic young writers was a fantastic treat.
Anyway, I gave a speech ( which was actually partly a story) and I thought I'd share part of it here. It's about the power of finding a story and why writing when you're young is wonderful. I've borrowed Stephen King's idea from On Writing that stories are like fossils.
So Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman is being reprinted with a YA cover.
This is brilliant news. In my last blog I wondered if we'd ever see YA up for big awards, like the Booker, and now my question has been answered- for Pigeon English did indeed feature on last year's Booker shortlist. It just goes to show that fiction that crosses over from adult to young adult markets and vice versa can indeed have great literary merit (not that this was ever in any doubt).
I urge you to read this book. It's funny and poignant and so heart-breaking; certainly one of the best books I read last year. Taking the killing of Damilola Taylor as its inspiration, the novel follows the hopes and dreams of eleven- year-old Harrison, a character who it's impossible not to love. Harrison is full of joy and excitement- newly arrived in London from Ghana we see him absorbing the world around him and experience the often terrible and frightening events of the inner city through his eyes. I don't want to give too much away and a lot has already been written about this novel, but it definitely deserves to be read by as wide an audience as possible so I'll be recommending like crazy. Let me know if you like(d) it.
My other big recommendation is Heft by Liz Moore which I'd also see as having huge appeal for YA fans. Any more suggestions of other novels with broad potential readership and fabulous writing will be gratefully received. I'm always happy to add to my pile.
It's interesting to hear that 55% of readers buying books classified as "YA" are adults. And apparently it's not all The Hunger Games either. The last book I bought was Two or Three Things I forgot To Tell You by Joyce Carol Oates and it's excellent, as well as being marketed as Young Adult (review to follow). Oates, incidentally, is one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th/21st century so if she's writing YA it just goes to back up my feeling that this is the place to be.
Follow the link to hear me reading the opening of Black Heart Blue and talking about some of the novel's themes and ideas on the Penguin Podcast! (I've only just been able to bring myself to listen to this - wasn't as bad as I thought, phew.)
A lovely blogger, Sarah, invited me to contribute to her blog - here's the link so you can read all about it. Thank you saz101!
Living Dead Girl tells us the story of Alice. When we meet her she is living with Ray, a sadistic paedophile who abducted her several years earlier. She's never been rescued or managed to escape and lives in fear, wishing only for her death. Ray is growing tired of Alice, she's growing up and he can't keep her as a little girl - despite almost starving her - and wants her to find him a new victim. Alice believes she may then be free, one way or another. This is the story's premise. Pretty horrific - yes?
I've been thinking a lot about romance this week. For my current WIP to really pack an emotional punch, two of the main characters need to have a convincing "I'm so in love with you I can't live without you" type thing going on. So, that led me to revisit my own teen romantic moments and remember what a sucker I was for a bad boy back then and also that I actually found romance in books, not real life.
You'll be pleased to hear that I'm finally starting to like my Kindle. It'll never replace the "real thing" for me, but I'm reading The True Tale of The Monster Billy Dean by David Almond on it at the moment and haven't had trouble getting into the story at all AND it's proved invaluable for the editing of my current manuscript. So we are developing a iking for one another. Maybe I'm one of those people who doesn't like change...must be getting old.
Just now everytime I turn on the radio, open a newspaper or watch the news I hear one name.
The first stanza of Plath's Daddy seemed such fitting lines of poetry to open Black Heart Blue, setting the tone and the atmosphere for this terrible tale of girls in danger of, or already destroyed by, their cruel and abusive parents. There were some other great lines I considered; I would also have liked to use Emily Dickinson's:
It would have starved a gnat-
To live so small as I-
And yet I was a living Child -
With - Food's necessity.....
I love giving my characters names which mean something. According to Shakespeare's Juliet, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I don't know if that's really true. If the play were called Donald and Juliet for example, would it be quite such a brilliant title? Of course, Donald is a lovely name and I have nothing against it but it doesn't have quite the same tragic ring, it doesn't ooze Italian romance. Your name should define and identify you. Without a name we are dehumanised, deindividualised. I remember being shocked reading Toni Morrison's Beloved, thinking about the reasons why a character would be called Sixo. And then we have other examples like Curley's wife and Margaret Atwood's Offred. The way they have been named tells us an awful lot about the society in which they live. Names can be political - a means of control or of imposing a definition on individuals. Dickens is great with names, as everyone knows. Uriah Heep is one of my favourites - it sounds as obsequious as the character himself.
Thanks so much if you came to the launch party for Black Heart Blue. It was a lovely celebration.
When writing is going well, it's like a force of nature, unstoppable and instinctive, akin to riding a wave or being drowned in a whirlpool, the former probably being the preferable scenario! So when people ask me how I felt when writing the harrowing and horrifying scenes in Black Heart Blue, it's hard to recall any exact feelings other than the sense of being carried away by the ideas and needing to express them as quickly and as powerfully as I could.
One day I hope I will write a perfect sentence.
I've taken delivery of a beautiful boxful of books. They really are a treat and I'm still grinning at the sight of twenty luscious copies of "Black Heart Blue " (MJ edition), all for me. BUT, because I'm so kind, I'm going to share. So, if you'd like to win a signed copy of "Black Heart Blue", then comment on this post - you can just say "Yes please!" and I'll enter you in my giveaway. Don't forget to leave a way for me to contact you, should you be the lucky winner. This giveaway will run until Friday 20th April.