Tuesday, August 29, 2006

New books

My advance copies of The Pirate's Revenge have just arrived from the publisher.
I picked one up and it felt like it had nothing to do with me at all, something only strangely and vaguely familiar, instead of something I wrote and rewrote and edited and proofed and re-read a million times.
Now it's turned into a book. How odd.
I suppose I'll have to sit down and read it now.
I wonder what happens in the end?

Monday, August 28, 2006

War things

Bloody Sarah Waters.
I'm in the middle of rewriting an old manuscript of mine set on the Somme in World War One - about a woman ambulance driver.
Now I've just stupidly read Waters' The Night Watch, which is in part about a woman ambulance driver in London during the Blitz and it's done my head in.
Mind you, I'm very glad I read it. I was putting it off for fear it wouldn't be as brilliant as Fingersmith, and it is indeed very different but equally compelling.
I've read a few unkind or at least unsure reviews but, by God, the woman's a chameleon. Fingersmith is a perfect rendering of the sensational Victorian novels - think Wilkie Collins or perhaps Mrs Henry Wood - as well as the erotica of the era. (I was less convinced by Tipping the Velvet, which felt too predictably like Rubyfruit Jungle in costume.)
Now she has switched eras and perfectly captured the feel, sombre mood and even the syntax of the novels written by women during or about the War. One feels almost as if it's a novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard or Elizabeth Taylor, except of course there's that modern courage about issues of sexuality and politics that Howard in particular never quite summoned (understandably - if only Howard's Sid had run into Waters' Kay, life might have been rather different for the Cazalets).
Waters has chosen to unravel a narrative backwards from 1947 to 1941. I heard her speak here a few months ago, and she explained that she wanted to reveal her characters gradually, just as you find out about people when you first meet. But even though their pasts, and specific events, are made quite clear during the narrative I was still profoundly shocked at the climax. Not by the fact of the event, but as a result of her precise prose.
The Night Watch will stay with me for some time.
I started reading Kevin Baker's Paradise Alley straight away, to take my mind off it, but now I'm stuck in the Potato Famine and it's too horrible to read late at night. I might have to flee to Jane Austen or something calming.


The books are the best of me. When people ask me why I write I tell them it's what I'm for. It really is as simple as that.
~ Jeanette Winterson


There's a lovely interview with illustrator Robert Ingpen in The Guardian, about his love of reading and illustrating the classics of children's literature. He's working his way through them slowly, one by one, (he'll meet Helen Oxenbury somewhere in the middle, no doubt - perhaps at The Secret Garden) providing gorgeous interpretations for a new generation of readers. And old readers for that matter - I have a precious signed copy of his Treasure Island:
When blind Pew knocks on Admiral Benbow's door in Treasure Island it's 'the most scary sound in literature,' he says. 'It comes as a sound to you by the skill of the writing and the vision of the man. You hear the sound and, if you hear that sound when you're nine years old and you've read it yourself, you'll read forever'.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Table manners

I detest... anything over-cooked, over-herbed, over-sauced, over elaborate. Nothing can go very far wrong at table as long as there is honest bread, butter, olive oil, a generous spirit, lively appetites and attention to what we are eating.
~ Sybille Bedford

Friday, August 25, 2006

Reading rooms

I don't know about you, but I hold my breath when I walk into a great library. An old library. They seem like sacred spaces. Breathless, soundless, musky spaces. Pages turn, people rub their eyes, pencils scratch.
I remember the first time I visited London I was too scared - really, petrified - to go near the British Museum Reading Room (as it was then). It seemed a world apart, as if, had I walked in, I should be asked to leave immediately. I probably would have been, too.
I feel that same sense even now, when hesitating on the steps of some hallowed hall somewhere in the world. I never feel like that about cathedrals or cemeteries. Sometimes I simply can't go in, or it takes a few stern words to myself to get me through the door.
My mother rang a few months ago to say she'd finally gone to have a peek at the renovated State Library of Victoria, and that she'd forgiven Jeff Kennett everything, because he'd funded the building restoration.
("Settle down," I said. "Well, maybe not everything," she agreed.) But it does look spectacular.
Even there, under that familiar dome, I can't actually quite believe I'm allowed in; that I can take down a volume of Captain Cook's journals from the shelf (a facsimile edition, of course) and rest it on those fine mahogany desks and turn pages like a person to the manner born.
It's not surprising, I suppose. Even apart from the old Port Melbourne girl within who tugs at my sleeve and says, "Our kind's not allowed in there", those great Victorian domed spaces still emanate a sense of seclusion - and exclusion.
In the British Museum Reading Room, you had to get a Reader's Pass. Say, for example, you happened to be Lenin or Marx, Dickens or George Bernard Shaw, or perhaps Virginia Woolf: you applied for a pass and if approved (they all scraped through, although Lenin used a pseudonym) you could use the Reading Room to your heart's content.
You still have to get a pass, but now you can order one online.
And for those who find it difficult to breathe at such high altitudes, you can also peek into the world's great library rooms online, here. Heavy breathing. It's purely bookish porn, glorious stuff.

(Link viaLeaf Salon)

Poor Pluto

Oh come on.
What's Pluto ever done to deserve being knocked off the planetary charts?
It wasn't hurting anyone, just quietly circling, minding its own business, not getting in Neptune's way. A slightly eccentric orbit can hardly be grounds for dismissal, surely, even in Australia.
How can it possibly harm anyone else, to let the poor old thing keep believing it's a planet?
I blame Xena.
Pluto's always been my favourite. We small, round outsiders have to stick up for each other.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

From the book pile

I've had enough of reading kids' books for the moment. I'm going to attempt to be grown up for a while, if I can remember how.
I've launched into Sarah Waters' Night Watch. A wise and trusted friend read it recently - I asked her how she found it and her only reply was: "There are lots of commas". I thought that was very funny until I started reading. There are lots of commas. And if I notice them, there must be millions, because, as you know, I'm a comma placer from way back.
That same wise and trusted friend is off to Malta tomorrow, laden with detailed instructions from me about where to eat rabbit stew. I'm so deeply jealous. Tears threaten.
I blasted my way through Jeannette Winterson's Tanglewreck on Saturday. It's a time travel novel for young readers (her first for kids and I hope not her last). She can be hilarious at times. Even when explaining elements of quantum physics to unscientific minds like mine. It's a lovely romp, hugely enjoyable and interesting adventure - I wished His Dark Materials had a few more jokes in it, now I come to think of it. But don't tell Mr Pullman I said that. There are parallels between the two, but few similarities, which is really quite appropriate for novels about time/universe slips.
I've also finally got my hands on a rather tattered copy of Ella Maillart's Forbidden Journey - her version of the infamous trip through China and Central Asia with Peter Fleming in 1935.
It's infamous in part because in his book about the trip from Beijing to Kashmir, News From Tartary (which I also have), he pretends Ella isn't there. It's ages since I read the Fleming so I'm looking forward to reading them side by side. My favourite Fleming line is:
I have travelled fairly widely in 'Communist' Russia (where they supplied me with the inverted commas).
And yes, in case you're wondering, he was the less wealthy less famous older brother of Ian.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Apologies if the blog is flickering before your eyes. I'm sick of the sight of it and playing with background colours. I'm also sick of the sight of those 216 bloody websafe colours, though, so I keep changing my mind. I've abandoned websafe now. Such a renegade.
Still, a change is apparently as good as a holiday.
I've never really held with that. I'd rather be in Morocco.
Been on a short story blitz this week. Last week I was pondering the sad state of my mind, and wondering why I never have any ideas for short fiction. This week I've written two pieces, with another on the way.
No idea what I'll do with them, but that's beside the point.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Book banning - episode #23,977

According to The Daily News (via As If):
The Wilsona School District Board [in California] has approved new library book-selection guidelines in the wake of trustees' controversial decision to remove 23 books including the latest Harry Potter from a list recommended for a school library.
Books now cannot depict drinking alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex, including "negative sexuality," implied or explicit nudity, cursing, violent crime or weapons, gambling, foul humour and "dark content."
"In selected instances, an occasional inappropriate word may be deleted with white-out rather than rejecting the entire book," the policy said.
How appropriate.
And while next month in NZ we celebrate National Book Month, if you're in the US you get to enjoy Banned Books Week from September 23.
Sponsored by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the National Association of College Stores, Banned Books Week is also endorsed by the Centre for the Books of the Library of Congress.
"Booksellers who celebrate Banned Books Week tell us that it is one of their favorite promotions," says the ABFFE. I guess you've gotta laugh.
Bring on some of that foul humour and dark content.

Why indeed?

When I step into this library, I cannot understand why I ever step out of it.
~ Madame Marie de Sevigne (woman of letters - many, many letters)

Monday, August 21, 2006

Worse than denial

Sometimes a web search takes you into weird parallel universes. You don't need Phillip Pullman's Subtle Knife, you just need Google.
When you're writing historical fiction, sometimes you need to know some small historical detail - a fact about clothing or dates, or see an image of something which doesn't make sense described in a book.
There's always someone out there who is mad enough about the subject to spend hours creating websites devoted to it, and in loving detail. Often they are collectors whose depth of knowledge is simply astonishing. Sometimes they are academics or students whose work is complex and scarily deep. Or boffins. Once I needed to know if Blackfriars Station was used as an air-raid shelter in the war. Couldn't find out anywhere. So I emailed the webmaster of a local train enthusiasts' site, and his members provided me with details of rolling stock, bomb damage incidents, and even engine numbers. I wanted to fly over to London and kiss them all individually. And there's a marvellous PhD student in Malta who has answered all sorts of obscure long-distance questions for me about the fortifications in the Grand Harbour.
Sometimes the sites are run by wacky history re-enactors who deep down believe that they really are Vikings or Venetian courtesans or members of the RAF. Or they like dressing up as pirates and sailing about. All harmless fun.
But today was different. All I wanted to know, for a short story, was about the uniforms worn by a 1st lieutenant (Obersturmfuhrer) in the SS in 1942. Grey or black? Simple.
I didn't think it through. I just thought there'd be a few militaria collectors' sites with images.
There are.
But first you have to wade through sites like that of the Australian Waffen SS, for members of whatever the f*ck that is. Deeply weird and sad and frightening sites - can someone just show me a picture of a damn greatcoat - about Holocaust denial and the resurrection of Nazism and ...Oh God.
Of course you know it's there and still current, and it bursts like a boil from time to time, but it's rarely on the surface, rarely glimpsed, rarely acknowledged.
I might have to go read a nice pink fairy book to recover.
Give me dress-up pirates any day.

Friday, August 18, 2006


The true felicity of a lover of books is the luxurious turning of page by page, the surrender, not meanly abject, but deliberate and cautious, with your wits about you, as you deliver yourself into the keeping of the book. This I call reading.
~ Edith Wharton

Invaded by Vikings

Spent yesterday at the Auckland Museum. It's long been one of my favourites, as its collection contains some real treasures of Oceanic art, and the Pacific Masterpieces room is one of my favourite rooms in any museum in the world. Sensational fish-hooks.
Also they have good swords.
But at present they have Vikings - the same exhibition as seen recently in Sydney at the National Maritime Museum, my spiritual home, although it seems a little smaller here.
But anyway weeks ago I had sketched out the plot for the new Viking book, which is the second in a new timeslip series - not much detail and really just knew how it fitted in with the overall narrative. Research so far had been sporadic, mostly because I start from what I already know and then research in bursts as required.
I stared intently at all the Viking displays, took a million notes, had a coffee and then wandered up to look at the swords in the Armoury. It's not the Tower, but it's a smart, small collection.
Stood gazing at something utterly unrelated (the detail on the guard of an 18th century infantry officer's sword) and then came the flash and clunk of a brain cranking slowly into gear.
By the time I got home from the museum I had the entire book clear in my mind and had started drafting.
Gone a-Viking.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Now, where was I?

Have you looked at Google maps? You can see your house from the air. And anything else, for that matter. People standing outside St Paul's or walking along the Embankment. The trees in the courtyards at Topkapi. Malta looks rather blurry, but London is crystal clear.
I can see the rapids in the river below my house in Melbourne. Seagulls on Onetangi beach (OK, I'm exaggerating now, but you get the idea).
But I'm supposed to be writing about recent kidlit I've read. First, some newish books:
I, Coriander (Sally Gardner) starts well, set in Civil War London and great on historical detail and atmosphere. But it's half fairy story and I'm not much interested in fairy stories so my eyes glazed over for a bit. Still, it's nicely written and paced, and I'm sure young readers without my prejudices will enjoy it.
Josie Under Fire is Ann Turnbull's contribution to the Historical House series. This is a great concept: take one house in London and use it as the setting for three separate stories about girls in different eras. Clumsy historical download in the first chapters (see below) but the themes of bullying and difference are explored without any of that moral high-ground nonsense you often get in books set in World War 2. (I do, though, prefer Linda Newbery's chapter, Polly's March).
Now a couple of classics:
I read about The Sprig of Broom by Barbara Willard in an essay in Solander, the journal of the Historical Novel Society, that traced the development of historical fiction for children. I'd never heard of it before then, I'm sorry to say, because it's very much in the Geoffrey Trease mode (it's a kind of post-script to the Mantlemass books, I think). Feisty girl, smart and brave boy, well-written drama, and a little Plantaganet intrigue. What more could one want?
Dragon Slayer is Rosemary Sutcliff's version of Beowulf for children. What a rip-snorter. She manages to capture the spirit if not the language of the time and the songs and poems of the oral tradition, while keeping it at the level of spirited adventure. It's been criticised, I know, but I think the old girl's got it right. Any kid who liked LOTR will find it appealling - and it's almost the real thing.
Had to read it for my course, and I'm very glad I did - I don't have very fond memories of reading the original many years ago, even though I normally love a good saga. I mean that in the Viking sense, not the Days of Our Lives sense. Must read Beowulf again.
Speaking of which, I'm off to the museum tomorrow to see the Viking exhibition - I whizzed around it when it was in Sydney in May, but tomorrow I'll take my time, and take notes, and get all inspired for the next project which is, inevitably, a Viking book.

Poisoned arrows

I go through phases, like everyone. For years I read little but travel writing and history, and very happily too. I've never quite emerged from that phase. I can admit to a 1980s feminist fantasy phase, a brief flirtation with sci-fi, a metaphorical affair with crime, and even my interest in contemporary fiction comes and goes (but then, so does contemporary fiction). I'm also one of those odd people who read poems - like, for fun.
On a plane I'll read almost anything. Even The Da Vinci Code.
Although I write historical fiction, I don't read it much because it's often awful - perhaps I hang about the intersection of histfic and literary fiction.
But at present I'm reading a great deal of kids' historical fiction, to see how it's done - in case I haven't got it right - to see what everyone else is doing, and to recapture the joy it brought me when I was 10 or so and hung out at the Nunawading Library every Thursday evening (Fridays we had fish and chips - not sure which was best).
Oh and also I bought a stack of out-of-print books at a school fair in Napier and it's taking a long time to work my way through them: you'd be surprised how many of those lovely slender Puffins you can fit in a box - or three.
Why bother writing about history for young readers?
In the latest Literary Review, Andrew Roberts rants about the teaching of history in the UK, and with reason. "In recent surveys," he tells us, "nearly three-quarters of 11- to 18-year-olds did not know that Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar was Victory [this in the middle of the anniversary celebrations]... Fewer than half of 16-24-year-olds knew that Sir Francis Drake was involved in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, with 13 percent thinking it was beaten by Horatio Hornblower."
That Horn, eh? He can do anything.
More worryingly, only 45 percent of Britons "associate anything at all with the word Auschwitz".
This brings me to me latest reading list, because when I re-read books such as Cue for Treason that I read when I was ten or so, it is blindingly obvious that we no longer have access to the assumptions that an older generation could safely make about the historical knowledge of their readers.
When I read to kids in schools, we talk a lot about pirates and the sea and history. In some schools, the kids have no idea where the Mediterranean is, that Italy looks like a boot, what on earth a Napoleon Bonaparte might be. I should say that in Australian schools, with so many Italian and Maltese kids and almost everyone learning Italian, the geography is more familiar - but not necessarily the history.
Now, I'm not one of those people who decry modern teaching methods, and I'm perfectly aware that there might be more urgent things kids have to learn that Napoleon's life story.
The point is that when we write historical fiction now we have to spell out every little thing, or give background impressions where once the background existed clearly in the readers' minds. I find it sad. And spelling out every little thing can be the death of historical fiction. I hate wading through potted histories of the world wars or suffragettes in the first chapter, and I'm sure kids do too.
It's the same with language, although for a different reason. It's clear when you read fiction for kids written before, say, 1980, that there's a quite specific assumed readership of middle-class children - especially in British fiction - where the author can rely on a certain level and type of education. The rest of us just had to keep up.
Perhaps now we write books that are more accessible to more kids, but there's a fine line between that and dumbing down, which has the effect of treating every child like a moron.
I've just read two books by Penelope Lively, with sprightly crisp writing, a fine English humour and wonderful characterisation. I remember reading A Stitch in Time when I was a kid: last week I read the Carnegie-winning The Ghost of Thomas Kempe and The House in Norham Gardens, both a breath of fresh air and both happily still in print.
The House in Norham Gardens, when published in 1974, was aimed at readers 11 to 14. Now, thirty years later, it would probably be pitched at Young Adult. It's a complex, sophisticated coming of age story in which nothing much happens except inside the protagonist's head. That's where the history lies, too. She slips into second person point of view and out again, slips through time and across cultures and through delicately shaded states of mind.
And also there are lots of spears and a New Guinea shield, which is always a good thing:
"In no other house, thought Clare, in absolutely no other house, could you open an old trunk and be confronted with a large bundle of bows and arrows...
Clare, putting the tray down on the table by the sofa, thought: I am the only person I know who has spears on their walls instead of pictures."
Some of them even have poisoned tips.
One of the other houses in the world with spears and bows and Highland shields is mine. It started with a bundle of poisoned arrows, went on to adzes and eel traps and it hasn't finished yet, although it's all bundled up in storage in Melbourne at present, because I didn't have the stomach to try to get them through NZ Customs when I moved here.
So I grew very fond of Clare and her elderly aunts in our brief acquaintance, and increasingly fond of Penelope Lively and her sharp mind and flawless prose.
Oh now I've gone on too long. Boring, sorry. I'll have to discuss the other books later.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Poetry gets a political party

Look out Tony Blair. Not only has Paris Hilton never heard of you, but now you're really up against it. Traditional verse activists have launched a political offensive in the UK. Their aim? Compulsory rhymes in all contemporary poems. Or perhaps Downing Street will have to issue press releases in couplets.
Ruth Padel runs through a potted history of potty poets, as therapy after being heckled at a conference by vociferous versifiers:
Too bad: the real rallying flag for the rhyme police is end rhyme in a rhyming scheme. This battle, though, was fought over 400 years ago by cutting-edge practitioners whose blank verse (begun in English around 1540 following Italy's versi sciolti da rima, 'verse freed from rhyme', developed roughly 1530) was blazing out of the language.
In 1602, Thomas Campion attacked 'the unaptnesse of Rime in Poesie'. Bad poets, he said, 'rime a man to death'. The 'popularitie of Rime creates as many Poets as a hot summer flies'. Rhyme should be used 'sparingly, lest it offend the eare with tedious affectation'...
It is fatally easy to rhyme badly. If you rhyme, it had better be fresh, better be good. Otherwise it doesn't just spoil your poem, it betrays rhyme itself.
Milton was against it. Rhyme acts on poets as "a constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse, than else they would have exprest them". Paradise Lost does not end-rhyme, nor much Tennyson, Wordsworth's Prelude and Excursion, or most of Shakespeare's plays.
I can see the bumper stickers now:
I rhyme and I vote.
Honk if you love Walter De La Mare.

Next please

Right then. Time for some shameless self-promotion.
The Pirate's Revenge, book two of the Swashbuckler trilogy, is out in Australia and NZ on October 6. For those desperate to know what happens next, here's the blurb:
Once a pirate slave, Lily Swann is navigator on the Mermaid, running the French blockade of Malta, when she learns her long-lost father may still be alive.
But before she can follow up her discovery, Lily clashes with the vile Captain Diablo, who forces her to show him the way to the famed Golden Grotto. Furious when he is unable to locate its fabled wealth, he abandons her to die in the darkness. As she battles her way out, Lily discovers the true treasure of the grotto, and her silver sword is soon put to the test.
But after another confrontation with Diablo, Lily is cast adrift with her old adversary, Hussein Reis, in a tiny boat without oars, sails, food or water - the pirate's revenge.

But then what? If you need to know what happens after that, you'll have to read book three, The Silver Swan.
You can download a larger version of the cover here.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Freedom of the city

Been writing all day, with breaks for coffee, walking about staring into mid-air, checking on the passage - or otherwise - of John Howard's pathetic refugee legislation, writing some more, researching online, Brand New Heavies on the headphones (I know that dates me, but so does all my working music), talking out loud to myself, poring over texts, and now cooking risotto.
Mostly I'm in Venice, in the Ghetto. Lost in memories of the ironwork around windows, empty squares, sea mist, dark churches, saints' bones, smells of fish and seaweed, onions and coffee in the air. Except I'm there in the 17th century, in a sunlit printing workshop, with a young character called Isabella.
Writing is freedom, too, you see.
It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily.
Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

~ Virginia Woolf

Kylie the fairy

I really do find this remarkable. Here are Nielsen's top ten children's books in Australia for the last month:
1 Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince JK Rowling
2 Kylie the Carnival Fairy Daisy Meadows
3 Lauren the Puppy Fairy Daisy Meadows
4 Katie the Kitten Fairy Daisy Meadows
5 Penny the Pony Fairy Daisy Meadows
6 Pirates John Matthews
7 Bella the Bunny Fairy Daisy Meadows
8 Georgia the Guinea Pig Fairy Daisy Meadows
9 Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix JK Rowling
10 Molly the Goldfish Fairy Daisy Meadows
Let me assure you that last month, before the release of Half-Blood Prince in paperback and the wonderful Pirates, the fairies really dominated.
Now, I know that those of you who haven't yet seen the fairy books in all their shiny pink glory (a bit like fairy floss, really - or Barbie) will be stunned by these rankings, and your first thought will be: Daisy Meadows can't possibly be a real name. Surely.
Of course not. It's the alias of Sue Bentley, best known for the equally glittery Magic Kitten series.
And it works, clearly.
I accept the books are not my cup of tea and never would have been, no matter how young. With all due respect to Ms Bentley, if anyone had given me a book about a Guinea Pig Fairy even when I was a kid I would have laughed, thanked them politely, and gone back to Elephant Adventure. But I'm queer like that.
Still, it's actually Kylie that gets me. Kylie the Carnival Fairy.
Let me just say that one last time.
I agree that Kylie Minogue made a wonderful absinthe fairy in Moulin Rouge, but I'm guessing that's a cultural reference that will slip by most of her intended readers.
A Kylie ain't a fairy. End of story.
Nor, for that matter, is a guinea pig.


When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature.
If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.

~ Maya Angelou

I've had a mantra in my head all weekend: Reading is freedom. That's all. That's everything.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Happiness is a new book

Well, I'm happy.
Finished this month's edition of the magazine (early). Got to the good old Women's Bookshop and finally picked up Jeanette Winterson's kids' book, Tanglewreck, and Sarah Waters' Night Watch, which I can claim is research since I'm now onto writing my second in the WW2/Blitz series.
I growled like a lion so loudly at little girl at the bus stop, I've nearly lost my voice. She laughed so much she fell over. I mustn't have looked very fearsome.
Then went to the library for college-related reasons and they actually had the books I needed (miracle #1) and even allowed me to borrow them (miracle #2) so to celebrate I also got out an old Leon Garfield collection and Sally Gardner's I Coriander, which I've been meaning to read for ages.
Now I have three weeks of blissful writing time stretching ahead of me. Three! (That's miracle #3.) I'm going to get stuck into my Spanish Inquisition project. Or possibly Vikings.
And in a few hours time I will have finished all my course work - for this week, anyway. I'll pretend to myself at least for a few days that there isn't another great brain-sucking time-consuming slab of work lying just ahead.
And there's a full moon. A harvest moon in winter. A Thomas Hardy moon. I saw it through a high window yesterday morning before I was properly awake. I saw it rise over the sea last night from the ferry.
O wondrous days.
I might just eat chocolate as well. Go crazy.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Reading is sexy (apparently)

Relax. According to The Guardian, a survey of over 2,000 adults carried out in the UK has found that books play a crucial role in influencing our opinions of strangers. Well, sure, but:
Half of those asked admitted that they would look again or smile at someone on the basis of what they were reading.
And it gets better... A third of those surveyed said that they "would consider flirting with someone based on their choice of literature".
My mind is utterly boggled at the idea of actually asking grown-up people these kinds of questions - and why - but let's just put that to one side. In fact, let's not think about that at all. Ever. Because what would we have to blog about if it wasn't for the latest stupid survey findings? But I digress.
The really good news is this:
The genre most likely to help you pull - the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny yellow polka dot bikini of the books world - is the classics, followed by biography and modern literary fiction (think Zadie Smith and Sebastian Faulks, rather than Dan Brown and Martina Cole). Forget the gym: if you want to raise your dating game, head down to your local library and start borrowing.
Now, perhaps if you were an extrovert, it might occur to you to start chatting or possibly flirting, even though the person next to you is clearly engrossed in a book. For an introvert, such behaviour is unimaginable. But let's face it, market researchers are extroverts and unlikely to consider any alternative scenarios, like someone scowling or blushing or losing her place on the page.
Most normal polite people only chat if you aren't doing anything - except on long plane flights, when no amount of engrossed activity or even pretending to sleep will deter some.
I have to admit at this point that nobody ever talks or smiles at me when I'm reading anything vaguely of interest to me, and I would scowl at them if they interrupted anyway.
But when I had the misfortune to be stuck in an airport in the middle of the night with nothing but Dan bloody Brown, about a million people - well, men - came up and told me that Da Vinci Code was the best book they'd ever read. Until I innocently asked one what other books he had read and he couldn't think of any.
I scowled.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Sleepless in ... where am I?

It's late. I shouldn't be doing this. I can hardly see. Slits for eyes. Been staring at a computer for what seems like years.
The days when I'm working at my day job start at 6.30am (cup of tea delivered to the bedside, thank you very much). Catch the ferry at 8, office by 9, ready for the second cup of coffee by 10 - usually ready for lunch by about 10.15.
Home on the 6.30 ferry. Dark. Wet. Cold. I hate winter.
Tonight: homework. Who ever knew there was so much to consider about picture books? I've stared at Max in Where the Wild Things Are for so long I want to slap him and put him to bed early.
I wish I could play on the monkey bars with Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge or go on a bear hunt with Helen Oxenbury. Today I was at the Children's Bookshop in Ponsonby and someone very small was chanting rather loudly in amongst all the books: "Oh no! We can't go under it. We can't go over it..."
There are worse things to have to do, I know. People look at you very strangely on the ferry when they are reading the latest Dan Brown and you are reading the latest Anthony Browne. And laughing.
But now my eyeballs are falling out of my skull so I must stop.
That's all by way of a long-winded explanation of why I can't think or blog about anything else this week.
Although I do love this exchange from the John Irving/Stephen King/JK Rowling session in New York, which inevitably focused on poor old Harry and his imminent or otherwise demise:
King recalled that when he had a character kick a dog to death in his novel Dead Zone he received more letters of complaint than ever, to his surprise.
"You want to be nice and say 'I'm sorry you didn't like that', but I'm thinking to myself number one, he was a dog not a person, and number two, the dog wasn't even real," he said.
"I made that dog up, it was a fake dog, it was a fictional dog, but people get very, very involved," King said.
Rowling noted that Irving had killed off many more characters than she had.
"When fans accuse me of sadism, which doesn't happen that often, I feel I'm toughening them up to go on and read John and Stephen's books," she said.
"I think they've got to be toughened up somehow. It's a cruel literary world out there."

Still trickling in

I love to read kids' reviews of books - my book, or anyone else's for that matter. It's fascinating to hear what elements they pick up on, and how they see the world you've created.
Here's a lovely review by Callum from Laingholm Primary School, published on LeafSalon:
This book has more action than a movie and is absolutely brilliant! My favourite character was Lily Swann. I liked her because she was taken as a slave by pirates and managed to take a ship from the pirates without fighting. She then became a queen among the pirates.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


What is the most precious, the most exciting smell awaiting you in the house when you return to it after a dozen years or so?
The smell of roses, you think? No, mouldering books.

~ Andre Sinyavsky

Friday, August 04, 2006

Life without books

Dina Rabinovitch takes on the "anti-readers", with a brief overview of the kidlit scene in the UK, a sprinkling of smart reviews, and a few hints to parents about how to engage kids with books and authors:
It is one of the many mini-miracles of the great flourishing of children's writing that children's literature should be so strong in a country where the anti-readers hold sway ... The groundswell in children's literature has been child-led; it's been playground word-of-mouth success first, with the adult critics running along behind.
The anti-readers, she says, are "the people - many are parents, some are teachers or classroom assistants - who simply do not know what it is to read, to handle books for the pleasure of their feel, to savour words, stories and pictures with no endgame in sight at all."
I just can’t imagine what that’s like, but it sounds terribly bleak.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Another story

The second Swashbuckler book, The Pirate's Revenge, goes to the printer tomorrow apparently.
I do hope it's all right.
It'll be out next month.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Cool girls rule (but don't get your clothes dirty)

Somewhere in the blogosphere, a contentious kidlit enthusiast has been compiling a list of the 200 "coolest girls" in children's books.
Here's her (and her readers') top ten:
1 Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
2 Lyra from the His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
3 Jo March from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
4 Laura Ingalls from the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
5 Harriet M. Welch from Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
6 Hermione Granger from Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
7 Turtle from The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
8 Arrietty from The Borrowers series by Mary Norton
9 Meg from A Wrinkle in Time (and sequels) by Madeleine L'Engle
10 Nancy Blackett from Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

We'll accept that these poor US-based people have not yet had the pleasure of reading the Swashbuckler trilogy, or, obviously, Lily Swann would have been number one.
But who'd like to explain to me how Anne of those infernally boring green gables is cool?
I'm happy to accept that her lesser-know fictional colleague, Emily of New Moon by Montgomery is pretty cool. But Anne's a wuss. A dull, wimpy, uninteresting wuss.
Give me, any day, the obnoxious Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden, Katy doing what she did, or indeed the mischievous Jo March.
Lyra? Yes. She's way cool.
I'm glad Hermione got a run, although Harry and Ron would snort pumpkin juice out their noses at the idea of her being cool. I have high hopes of Hermione.
It's an hilariously dated list, reflecting the respondents own childhood reading of the Victorian classics, in which, we'd have to admit, cool was normally not an attribute of female protagonists. For God's sake, that goody-two-shoes Sara Crewe from A Little Princess made number 18. Not a cool bone in her body. And don't start me on Fancy Nancy Pantsy Drew.
Where's Kit from Cue for Treason? Eloise, surely the coolest child that ever ordered room service? Olivia?
I vote for the scalliwags and swashbucklers, like Nancy Blackett. The black sheep. The girls who swam against the current of their times. The heroines who made their readers believe that anything was possible - even writing children's books.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Travel bugs

I don't see why I'm not in Africa. I ought to be in Africa. I planned to be in Africa. I really meant to be in Africa.
But I'm not.
Not this year.
The story is too dull to tell, but the point is that I really haven't been anywhere far far away for months and everyone in this house is getting itchy feet.
Morocco was supposed to be next on the list, after we'd been to southern Africa. We've bought lots of books about it, but not the tickets.
I keep meaning to get to Uzbekistan too. I have wanted to stand in the Registan like Robert Byron for as long as I can remember. The turquoise tiles. The dry hills. The textiles and mud walls and mutton stew.
I have to go to London at some point this year for research purposes. It's a very good idea, I've found, to set one's books in distant places, because then you have to go do the research in person. And really, while you're in London, you may as well travel around and look at some gardens and boats and castles and swords. Maybe buy a book or two. That kind of thing.
And then again, there's not much point going all that way and not going to Ireland as well. Or Wales. Or both.
The next book is, very cleverly I think, set in Amsterdam, Venice and Seville.
But then again I still haven't been to Russia. Or Portugal.
Or Broome.
Or ...