Thursday, 24 February 2011

The British Books Challenge 2011 - Review of My Swordhand is Singing by Marcus Sedgwick

I don't know why, but I've had a big timelag in my reading of Marcus Sedgwick.  I started well with The Book of Dead Days and Dark Flight Down, both of which I loved, but somehow, after that, I missed out for a long while.  And then, last November, I met Marcus at the SCBWI UK conference, where he and I were both speaking.  Naturally I had a browse around all his titles, and oh joy! I discovered that he'd written a vampire novel.  Not just any vampire novel, either, but one that tapped into the most ancient Eastern European vampire lore.  Of course, I bought My Swordhand is Singing immediately, and Marcus was kind enough to sign it and even to draw me a special smiley coffin. 

I've come late to vampires.  Maybe I've become braver as  I approach middle-age, maybe being scared of things that go bump in the night just takes up too much energy. Whatever it is, I no longer hide behind the sofa at the sight of a roving fang or a pool of spilt blood on the TV, or under the bedclothes at the mention of a silken cloak or a white face rising out of a coffin.  However, My Swordhand is Singing is not about the modernised, almost civilised vampires we have come to know from recent 'dark fiction', nor is it in any way, shape or form related to the goodie-goodie vanilla vampires of Twilight.  It is from a much much older and darker tradition than that.  Some time ago (long before the current vamp-craze) I did some research into the Eastern European legends of the Moroi and other night creatures for a book I was then writing. Marcus too has delved deep into those stories, and his book conjures that aura of raw terror which is what all the best old monster legends are made of.

Peter and his father Tomas, both woodcutters, are newly-arrived outsiders in the village of Chust.  Tomas is drunken, secretive, violent--and Peter doesn't understand many of the things his father does, including why he has dug a channel so that their hut is surrounded by running water.  Chust is a closed, suspicious village--and it is riddled with the undead, who rise from their graves and infect the whole community.  This is certainly a Gothic horror story--but it is much more than that.  Marcus delineates his characters with care and skill--and the sub-plot (equal in importance) which runs alongside the thrilling main story of the rise of the Shadow Queen is that of a father-and-son relationship full of terrible loss and also of a kind of sorrowful, elegaic redemption. It's one of those stories where you long for it to come all right in the end, even though you know it can't. I stayed up all of one night reading--and no doubt I shall stay up on another when I read the sequel, The Kiss of Death.  Highly recommended for weaning teens off saccharine vampires, and for all who like good writing and a damn fine story.

Here's Marcus's answer to my usual


SCC: At Radu's funeral, the priest surrounds the corpse with hawthorn twigs.  In the Celtic mythic tradition the hawthorn is associated, amongst other things with the advance of Summer and the defeat of Winter.  Given the theme of the battle between the Shadow Queen and the Winter King which runs throughout My Swordhand is Singing, were you aware of the symbolisms attached to this particular wood when you wrote the book?

MS:  The short answer is yes, hawthorn is one of the more magical woods in many European traditions, and I found it enjoyable seeing these things blurred and spread across various folk traditions, including that of the Transylvanian vampire lore. Incidentally, the apparent 'practical' origin of the thorn was that it would pop a bloated corpse, thus taking away some of its apparently evil manifestation.

SCC:  Thanks, Marcus.  I somehow know that that idea of popping a bloated corpse is going to stay with me for some time.

Monday, 21 February 2011

The British Book Challenge 2011 - Review of WE by John Dickinson

I'd better come clean here.  I'm not a great fan of classic space science fiction.  It doesn't speak to my heart, somehow--maybe I just haven't tried hard enough to love it as much as I do high fantasy.  So why have I chosen to review WE, whose back cover blurb starts with the very sci-fi sentence "In the furthest, coldest, darkest reaches of our solar system, Paul Munro is on a mission from which he can never return."? Well, for one thing it's by John Dickinson, whose previous books I have loved, for a second, it's longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2011, and for a third, I kept catching glimpses of high praise for it here and there on the social networks. I definitely wanted to give it a go. 

WE inserted itself into my consciousness without my really realising it--and that's a strange thing, given what the book's title actually translates as. WE is the World Ear, and every human on Earth is plugged into it. It runs and rules their consciousnesses.  Want a fact?--just think it, and the WE will come back with an answer.  Want an image? A list? A personal communication? The WE will provide.  It rules every aspect of human life. Imagine that--and then imagine it being taken away. Worse, imagine waking up a million billion miles from everything you've ever known, and having to live with people--other humans, yes--but who look and think so differently from you as to be almost alien. People who communicate with their voices, not their minds. People with hidden secrets and maybe hidden agendas.  What then? That is what Paul Munro has to contend with when he arrives on his desolate, icy moon home.

WE is published by David Fickling Books, but it's certainly not a children's book per se.  I'd give it to an older teenager--indeed it's on Lovely Daughter's summer holiday pile already.  But I'd also recommend it for adults.  It's a book which made me think a lot, not least about how we modern humans relate to the other people around us, both near and far--and how our social communications patterns have already changed beyond recognition from, let us say, fifteen or twenty years ago. It wasn't particularly comfortable thinking, either. But although it is certainly bleak in both subject matter and setting, it's not a book without hope. I liked it very much indeed, partly because its subject and tone IS so very different from my usual reading matter.  It's also made me think that perhaps I should give sci-fi another chance after all.

Now, as will become apparent with all my forays into reviewing, I am reader who always has questions for the author.  John was kind enough to agree to answer one of mine. So here he is with a reply to my


SCC: Given the startling and rapid rise of social networking and technology in the last five years, it isn't hard to imagine a progression to something like the World Ear.  Do you think it is essential for authors to spend part of their time interacting with their readers via social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, or do you think we are getting sucked into something dangerously addictive, which will eventually drain all the creativity out of us?"

John D: That's an interesting question Lucy, though I think the interesting bit is more to do with creativity than with the relentless advance of technology.

Our creative ideas come from our experience, either from things we have seen and can remember, or from stuff that happened way back and has got replayed to us through our subconsious. Interacting with others should be one of the richest experiences we can have and should give us all kinds of ideas. Maybe talking through a screen isn't the richest way of doing it, (and I personally do not find it addictive), but it's surprising what things our minds will latch on to and start to use. No, if on-line social networks pose a threat to our creativity it will be because they lead us to divert said creativity into trying to be as witty and entertaining and insightful in person as we are in our books. But this is a problem authors and artists have always had.

How would creativity happen in a society shaped by on-line networking, as I have imagined in WE? Our experience would be such that we would not really think of ourselves as 'I' but as ' a part of WE'. That would determine the kind of things we wanted to create. There would still be creativity, I think, but it would be more likely to be a mass creativity, such as you see whan a crowd starts a Mexican wave or a group of people burst out singing and naturally find a harmony. The individual artist might still exist but their work would be hard to understand. And no one would seek them out on Facebook or Twitter. Why should they? Celebrity would be dead. Nobody would want, in any sense, to be that person. Because 'a person' would no longer be what we were.

SCC: Thank you, John.  I'll have to go away and think about all that some more now!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Northants Council Does U-turn on Libraries! --BREAKING NEWS--

I am (cautiously) delighted to tell you that Northamptonshire County Council has just announced that they have reversed their decision on library cuts, and that 'no library will close at this point'.  The Chronicle and Echo reported that all Northamptonshire Libraries (including Roade) are 'expected to be saved from the chop'.  This is really excellent news (if true), and many congratulations should go to all those who fought so hard on February 5th to get their point across to councillors. 

However--a word of warning.  The battle is not over yet.  The council has pointed out in its press release that there will be 'a fundamental review of the library service to make it fit for the 21st century'.  They also use phrases like, 'merging with other local services', 'community-led independent libraries', 'prosperity or volunteering hubs'--and fostering 'intergenerational activities'.  In short, they want a 'Big Society Library Service' here.  But what do the council tax payers of Northamptonshire want?   I just talked to Richard Purves of BBC Radio Northampton and reiterated my feelings on the importance of libraries.  I hope people will hear what I had to say and want to get vocal for their own local.  We have a little tiny breathing space now to think about what is next.  I'll be working with my local libraries and discussing what I can do to help--but I'm only one person. We've seen what people power can do in Egypt--and what it did on behalf of libraries on 5th February 2011.  So please, if you're reading this and you're in Northamptonshire--go to your local library TODAY and give them your support. We fight on!

Friday, 11 February 2011

Guardian and Others Pick Up Amis Post

I'm delighted that Benedicte Page the Guardian Books editor has picked up my Awfully Big Blog Adventure Amis piece--you can read what the Graun say (and all the comments)

have also published the story.  I'm feeling like the small pebble who started the avalanche and learning a lot about the power of the meejah. 

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

In Which I Defend Children's Books Against A Literary Twit

Today I'm over on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure giving literati novelist Martin Amis a b*ll*cking for his quite unnecessary onslaught on children's writing.  Lots of commenting going on from the lovely kidlit community, but no response from Amis (not that I expected one).  Please do go over and see what it's all about (you may want to join in!).  The link is


Saturday, 5 February 2011

Save Our Libraries Day - The Read-In At Roade Library, Northamptonshire

Roade Sign copyright James Rudd
The library at Roade was crammed as I arrived.  Simply jammed with wall-to-wall people--all ages from babies in arms to the very elderly.  They were all determined to save their library from closure, to make their voices heard, and to give support to their two knowledgeable, enthusiastic and utterly irreplaceable librarians. 

The Roade Crowd
The newly-formed Friends of Roade Library were out in force with tea and the most wonderful array of cakes, the press photographer from the Chronicle and Echo was snapping away, as was James Rudd of TowcesterNews (to whom many thanks for permission to use some of the photos here).  There were four of us local authors--Julia Jarman and me for the children's book side, and Leo and Cassandra McNeir for the adults.
Lucy and Books copyright James Rudd
I talked to so many people today.  There was a lady who comes to the library up to four times a week--for books--but also for social life, for clubs, for chatting to friends.  "Where else could I go, if this was closed?" she asked me.  I spoke to a retired teacher, looking at a guidebook to Australia where she's off to visit friends soon. "I just popped in to check something.  I use the library all the time. It's essential to me."  I heard about the elderly gentleman who comes in for his audiobooks--the librarian knows just what he likes, and takes care to set time aside to chat to him.  I talked to the kids--who had made fantastic posters to make their point. DON'T CLOSE OUR LIBRARY All of them read books.  All of them loved books.  All of those kids had been coming to borrow books the library since before they could walk.  Roade Library is essential to all of them in so many different ways. 
Emergency Library Aid Needed!
While I was hearing stories from the people who use Roade, there was a lively Rhymetime session going on in the children's corner--complete with variations! The kids joined in enthusiastically--and no wonder.
Rhymetime at Roade
Then it was Julia Jarman's turn to read one of her lovely picture books--and all the time, people were coming and going from Roade and all the surrounding communities, signing up for the library, taking out books, returning them, asking advice--saying how much they loved and valued their library. 

A Quiet Moment

One little boy had seized on the book he wanted and, not wanting to wait a moment longer to open it, had settled down in one of the few quiet corners to read. 

While Leo McNeir was reading an extract from his latest crime novel, I joined the young badge makers at the back of the children's area--who made me a selection of excellent 'Save Roade Library' stickers--all of which I wore with great pride for the rest of the day. Then it was my turn to read--I think the children liked my attempt to snore like a giant best!
Lucy reading from Greek Beasts and Heroes
I had a great chat afterwards with a young lady who is destined to be a writer, I think, and who, the librarian told me, 'devours books as fast as I give them to her'.  She settled down to read one of mine--and had finished it within the hour!

A Fanatical Library User
Meanwhile, we had been joined by Councillor Andre Gonzalez de Savage from Northamptonshire County Council, and by Councillor Stephen Clarke from South Northamptonshire Council. Councillor Gonzales de Savage tells me he trained as a librarian for 3 years, and worked as a school librarian at two schools in Hampstead.  He must know how important libraries are--and he is in charge of trying to close eight of them in Northamptonshire.  A little ironic, I feel, to say the least. 
Councillor Clarke (l) and Counciller Gonzalez de Savage(r) of SNC and NCC
Councillor Gonzalez de Savage talked a great deal about the Government imposing cuts, but he said he was willing to listen and to work with Roade to try and find a solution.  Here are some other things he said:
"I'm not working towards a negative for you."  Well, we're glad to hear that, Councillor.
"I would vote 100% against the council [closing Roade Library] if there was a sustainable plan for funding."  We will hold you to that, Sir!
On any 'matching' by the council of funds to money raised by voluntary donations: "Funding support is a one year scenario."  So where does that leave Roade next year, then, Councillor? 
"I will do what I possibly can to link communities who want to share libraries...I am passionate for libraries but [funding] has to be supported fiscally by communities." We already pay our taxes for the library, Councillor!  But it's good to know you are 'passionate for libraries'. 

Despite the huge show of support, there is a long way still to go for Roade.  The Parish Council will be discussing the planned closure and how to prevent it as a matter of urgency--Paula Davies of the Friends of Roade Library has to put together a skeleton plan and get it to the council by Tuesday.  Time is not on Roade's side.  But the fight has started in earnest--Roade library was just one of many all over the country where people were getting vocal for their local.  We will not give up.  We will not go away.  We will not be quiet.  We can't. Libraries and the many things they give us are essential to a civilised and literate society.  As Kathy Lette said recently: "Closing our libraries will make us a nation of numbskulls – the Illiterati." And none of us want that, do we?

Save Libraries on BBC Radio Northampton

Here's the link to the #savelibraries piece on BBC Radio Northampton's Drivetime.  You can find it at  You can find my interview at 51.10m  Only 6 more days to listen! 

Friday, 4 February 2011

Please Help Us to Save Libraries! GET VOCAL FOR YOUR LOCAL!

Tomorrow (5th February) is a day of nationwide protests, read-ins and author events against the proposed cuts to our UK libraries (400+ under threat at the last count).  I'll be at Roade Library in Northamptonshire from 10.30 to 1.30pm, with another children's author, the lovely Julia Jarman.  We'll be talking to people about why libraries are so important for both children and adults, reading from our books--and giving out this statement (which originated from librarian and author Theresa Breslin in Scotland). 

We would like to protest at the widespread cuts to the library service taking place throughout the UK. In addition to the promotion of knowledge, literacy, and information retrieval skills, a professionally delivered library service embeds the joy of reading in our young people, building self awareness, articulate self expression, confidence, validating their life and culture, and leads to social and emotional literacy. In a society experiencing a widening gap in household incomes, our libraries, in the great tradition on which they were first inaugurated and enshrined in the law of the land, provide access for all. The cuts to book budgets, library opening hours, mobile services, branches, and the drastic and unnecessary deletion of professional posts strike at those most in need of a library service and those least able to protest against the cuts in that service - the less affluent, the elderly, the frail, people who are challenged mentally and physically and their carers, those who look after babies and toddlers and, crucially, our children -who are our future.
I'll be on BBC Radio Northampton's Drivetime with Helen Blaby this afternoon, talking about why libraries are so crucial, and telling her that I wouldn't BE an author if I hadn't had my local library to feed my passion for books when I was a child.  I'll post a listen again link to the programme when I have it.

Please, GET VOCAL FOR YOUR LOCAL and join in wherever you are! 

There's a map of all library events at Voices for the Library so you can find out where your nearest event is.

All the recent media coverage is on Campaign for the Book founder Alan Gibbons' Blog

There's a fantastic and moving film by award-winning movie-makers @welovelibraries HERE  Please watch it!

The Guardian's Theresa Malone will be blogging and tweeting events as they happen, you can tweet her at @culture_cuts and the hashtag will be #savelibraries

Thanks to Phil Bradley for the wonderful WWII inspired library posters, which you can find HERE

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