29 January, 2016

Coming Late to Children's Books

The winner of this year's Costa Book Award was announced this week. To the surprise of many people, Book of the Year was won by the winner of the Children's Book Category - The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, a Victorian mystery story. It is only the second time the a children's book has won the overall award (the first being The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman).

For me, this marks a trend I've noticed in the last few years - that of children's and Young Adult's books becoming increasingly recognised as works of literary merit and enjoyed by people of all ages Whereas they used to be the domain of under-16s and aspiring authors for that age-group, they are now unashamedly popular. I'm sure some of this has to do with the mass appeal of Harry Potter, but I hope it also has to do with an acceptance that books for children are not books that are written to a lower standard.

When I was a child I devoured books. I was a huge fan of Enid Blyton, especially the Famous Five books and Malory Towers, but I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on. By my mid-teens I was mostly reading adult fiction, but thanks to the BBC Big Read in 2003, I ended up reading a lot of books for younger minds in my late teens and early-twenties. And I think I probably got more out of them coming to them later than I would've done a few years earlier.

Here are a few of the books I came to late which I would recommend for readers of any age:

  • Holes by Louis Sachar. I read this when I was suffering from a horrendous cold that stopped me sleeping. Instead of sleep, I lay in bed all night and read this cover-to-cover. I can't remember doing this with any other book. A story of a boy who gets sent to a detention camp where the punishment is to dig a hole of an exact size every single day, it's brilliantly engaging.
  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I've always enjoyed the romance of books set in "simpler times". I adored Anne of Green Gables as a child! This is a charming and witty book set in the 1930s and was a joyful read.
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I'm not the only one here, I know. This book took the world by storm a few years ago and, although nominally Young Adult, has probably been read by as many Old Adults as Young by now, and deservedly so. It's warm and tragic and heart-breaking without being miserable or saccharine. It deserves every accolade it has received.
  • His Dark Materials (trilogy). I did try to read this in my early teens and didn't get on with it. Then I tried again later, and loved every sentence. Lively and gripping, but also chilling and moving. Perhaps the perfect Young Adult books?
Are there any books targeted for younger readers, that you have come to as an adult and enjoyed? The rise to fame of The Lie Tree has inspired me to search a bit wider for my next must-read book. It has been a long time since I read any Young Adult fiction, what do you recommend?

20 January, 2016

Happy New Year!

Hands up who got a stash of books and/or other literary gifts this Christmas? I thought I'd start 2016 not with a list of my writing resolutions - this is woefully short - but with a glimpse of my favourite literary gift.

I was lucky enough to receive all sorts of wonderful things for Christmas, including this Alice in Wonderland necklace. My favourite book-themed gift though had to be this surprise present from my parents.

I may not yet have written a novel that will become a classic for generations to come, but my mug thinks I have. As I don't drink tea or coffee, nobody has ever got me a special mug before, but I do drink hot water all the time so it's nice to be included at last!

What were your favourite Christmas gifts?

30 December, 2015

2015 Review

Most years I have plenty of news to report about my own writing. This year, I was going to say that nothing happened - as a full-time mum of two boys under two years-old, I have done much less writing than I'd like. However, looking back I see that more happens when life goes on than you realise! What's been the highlight of your year?

  • My debut novel The Art of Letting Go was selected for promotion by Amazon in February which led to sales of nearly 10 000 copies and a brief stint as the bestseller in Women's Literary Fiction.
  • Even more exciting, my novel was one of the Top 10 most-read books on Kindle in the UK in February, making me one of the 20 most-read Kindle authors too.
  • My flash fiction The Language of Fish won second-prize in a competition.
  • I decided to scrap the first draft of a novel I was working on and started again in February, finishing the new draft just a few days before my second son was born in August. It was extremely hard work, especially towards the end of the pregnancy. My first drafts are always awful, but I'm proud of just completing this one.
  • The Art of Letting Go was voted for by the public and was one of three winners in the People's Book Prize for the autumn quarter of the 2015/2016 competition. It will go forward as one of 12 finalists in May.
  • At the end of the year my novel had over 100 reviews on Amazon, averaging 4.3 stars. This was my favourite review. 

So even though I've done very little writing, my past work has kept me going throughout 2015. And of course, I've read a lot of good books. The one advantage of being up a lot of the night with a new baby - plenty of reading time! Despite this, I've not read as many books as some years. Here's a summary of my reading year...

  • I read 19 books in total.
  • Four books I gave ten out of ten: Perfect by Rachel Joyce; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler; The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton; The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.
  • Of these, my absolute favourite was The Book Thief.
  • My least favourite read of the year was Something Borrowed, Someone Dead by MC Beaton.
  • The average score I gave the books this year was exactly eight out of ten.

What was your top read of the year?

I hope all the people who have taken the time to read my blog and support in me in so many other ways this year have a blessed and happy 2016.

22 December, 2015

The Book... by Martyn Beardsley

Image from google books.
After a long hiatus I present to you the latest in my occasional series of guest blog posts. This series is where writers and readers tell us about a book which has meant something special to them. We've had books that encouraged early reading and books that have shaped faiths and books that will be passed on to the next generations. Today, my dear friend and author, Martyn Beardsley, tells us about...

The Book That Almost Came to Life

When I was young I read a book about a boy staying in a big old house. On a nocturnal exploration he stumbles on a way of going back to the house's Victorian past, and befriends a girl who lived there. It was Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce. Each time he goes back in time and plays with her she is a little older, until finally she is a young woman with a boyfriend. Tom is still a little boy, and sadly realises that the adventure is over. I won't give away the twist ending – but it always brings lump to my throat.

I re-read it as an adult, and unlike many revisits of childhood books I wasn't disappointed. I learned that the setting was the author's own childhood village on the River Cam near Cambridge - and decided to go on a literary pilgrimage and find it.

After some fruitless wandering about I spotted an elderly lady pottering in her garden, and asked for directions. I was surprised by the grilling she gave me as to the reason for my search – until she finally admitted, 'I am Philippa Pearce – I bet you thought I would be dead by now!' (I denied it – but the books were old so I had kind of assumed…)

She invited me in for a cup of tea, explaining that she had bought this cottage because it was opposite the old family mill house which had inspired her stories. We discussed her writing, and when I told her I was an aspiring but unpublished writer myself she gave me some useful advice. I went away walking on air and clutching a signed copy of another of her books. Only a year or so later I finally had my first book published, and I sent her a copy and received a very kind reply. One lasting effect of the encounter is that I've always tried help other unpublished writers in whatever small way I could.

It's only just struck me that the denouement of my story is not unlike that of the novel, which prompted me to change the title of this little piece. Apart from the birth of my daughter, meeting Philippa Pearce remains the most magical memory of my life.


Thanks, Martyn. As an once-unpublished writer who Martyn helped and encouraged, I am very grateful to Philippa Pearce as well! Tom's Midnight Garden was one of my favourite childhood classics and I'm itching to read it again now...

14 December, 2015

The 100 Greatest British Novels

The BBC Culture website have recently published a series of articles on the results of a poll to find the greatest British novels of all time. The poll was conducted among 82 non-British book critics, who were each asked to nominate ten novels by British authors.

You can see the full list, here. Here are the Top 25:

25. White Teeth (Zadie Smith, 2000)
24. The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing, 1962)
23. Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy, 1895)
22. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (Henry Fielding, 1749)
21. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad, 1899)
20. Persuasion (Jane Austen, 1817)
19. Emma (Jane Austen, 1815)
18. Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989)

17. Howards End (EM Forster, 1910)
16. The Waves (Virginia Woolf, 1931)
15. Atonement (Ian McEwan, 2001)
14. Clarissa (Samuel Richardson,1748)
13. The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford, 1915)
12. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1949)
11. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813)

10. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848)
9. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
8. David Copperfield (Charles Dickens, 1850)
7. Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë, 1847)
6. Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853)
5. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë, 1847)
4. Great Expectations (Charles Dickens, 1861)

3. Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925)
2. To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf, 1927)
1. Middlemarch (George Eliot, 1874)

Of these 25 I have read the 11 ones highlighted in red. I have also seen the film adaptation of Atonement. Having spent a decade working my way through the BBC Big Read Top 100, I am daunted by the thought of starting a new list of novels, but I'm also a little bit tempted. Anybody tempted to give it a go with me? I've read 25 in total so that leaves me with a whole lot of reading to do! On the list my three favourites so far are probably, Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro), Emma (Jane Austen) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell). Which are your favourites?

If you are looking for some interesting reading material I recommend having a browse of the related articles on the BBC website. Among other things, you can read about why Middlemarch is the greatest of the great (something that, I have to say, baffles me - I wasn't that keen on it myself. In fact, I noted it as being the least memorable of all the books in the Big Read!), what makes a British novel great in the first place, and why women are far better-represented in this list than you might expect.

What do you think of the list? Are there any glaring omissions? If you spot any, please let me know so I can add them to my Must-Read list of books!

My special thanks to my dear friend, Joe, for pointing me in the direction of these articles.