The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This month’s Waterstones Book of the Month is an absolute joy of a début novel from a bright new talent, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, who has already made a name for herself through her work as a poet and playwright.

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The Girl of Ink & Stars is the tale of Isabella, the daughter of a cartographer forbidden to travel outside of the small island village Gromera, which she calls home. Through her father’s maps and stories, Isabella dreams of a world she’s never seen and yearns for a chance to follow in his footsteps; to map the island she lives on and to see the world across the sea. When her best friend, the Governor’s Daughter Lupe, goes missing into the forests that border the village, Isabella is determined that she is the only person equipped to find her – relying on her study of maps and stars to track Lupe accurately and swiftly. It’s outside of the safety of her home that she starts to understand why the rest of the island has always been out of bounds, and starts to realise that the stories and myths that she grew up with might be a lot closer to home than she first realised.

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Good lord do I love a good map in a book.

This book is traditional children’s storytelling at its very best. Isabella is shot through with powerful curiosity and courage, and Lupe is filled with confidence and determination, and the two of them are the perfect two sides of the coin to Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belacqua, and through them the story is given its sense of whimsy and wonder, as well as its pace and tension. The Governor is another highlight as a character too – his motives being shadowy and complex, morally grounded if muddier in their execution. The real main character of the book though, is the Isle of Joya itself – a beautifully tragic and richly imagined home filled with myth and folklore that pulls so much from ancient stories of warrior princesses, crazed demons and dizzying labyrinths. The way the island is described – its history, the lack of animals, the grey and ashen trees and strange empty villages – all create a real sense of age and melancholy that counteracts the story’s two main characters and creates a battle between hope and fate that weaves into words, underlying the narrative.

Kiran’s skill as a poet shines through the way the story is told too, filled with rich language and lyrical passages that make it seem as though the story and the setting are singing as your work through it, filling the whole plot with a sense of magic, wonder and beauty. Plus, the book is simply sublime as an object, with gorgeous pages dotted with golden illustration, a striking choice in font style & colour and an absolutely beautiful fold out map that serves as a jacket (which I actually squealed at upon first seeing) – it really reminded me of the first time I picked up a copy of The Hobbit, and the feeling of ancient, deep world building you get from looking at something so beautifully crafted.

The Girl of Ink & Stars is the magic of J.K. Rowling and Diana Wynne-Jones wearing the adventure pyjamas of Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell. It’s exactly the fun and feel a future classic Children’s novel should have, and I utterly adored it.

Thanks for Reading,

D

P.S. You can pick up a copy at your local Waterstones, or on the website HERE.

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My Top Ten Reads of 2015!

I’m pretty sure when I did my top ten round up last year, I said something along the lines of “Wow, what an outstanding year it’s been for YA & Books in general” but THIS YEAR BEAT THE PANTS OF IT. Seriously, 2015 has seen the publication of some of the most challenging, powerful and evocative novels for Young Adults that have ever been available. The level of diversity, LBQT+ inclusivity and Mental Health awareness is beyond anything it’s ever been in previous years – and while we still have a long way to go, it makes my heart sing to see the dedication of authors, publishers, readers, bloggers and the whole community to actively shout about diversity and to demand better representation in the books they read. The UKYA community is going from strength to strength too, becoming a glowing warm beacon of passion and friendship across the internet that I always feel privileged to be a part of. OKAY, enough of me doing all this gushing – in no particular order, here’s a list of ten of my FAVOURITEST READS from this year! 

The Lost and The Found by Cat Clarke 

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Cat Clarke has a reputation for harsh, bleak thrillers that have a talent for breaking reader’s hearts in two. The Lost and The Found is no exception to her gritty formula, focusing on a family absolutely torn apart by the loss of their daughter thirteen years ago. It has an emotional level to it that’s uncompromising and refuses to look at the world in terms of black and white, letting Faith, its main character, be angry, bitter and selfishly flawed in ways that are deep and understandable. It’s a powerful book that asks a lot of questions, and isn’t afraid to leave those questions unanswered.

Birdy by Jess Vallance

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FRANCES BIRD IS MY BEST FRIEND. Birdy is a sinisterly dark, acid clever little thriller with so much of a skewed sense of unease. Hinging on an obsessive, out of control friendship and coming from a wonderfully unreliable narrator, it’s a slow burning novel that gradually unravels into a sprawling spider’s web of deception, paranoia and constantly escalating madness. It’s definitely not one for the faint of heart, but if you like a book that pulses with psychological trauma and emotional turmoil, then this is a fast paced gem for you. You awful person.

The Next Together by Lauren James 

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Lauren’s debut managed to do something that never normally happens for me – it managed to be a love story that I felt totally invested in! Her characters are witty and sweet, warm and utterly real, and she lets them be quirky and original, without falling into the usual gender stereotypes, and the use of time travel is clever, original and quite often fascinating – well researched and fully formed, and the way it skips between them creates a fresh, paced feel that keeps the plot hanging and pounding. Not to mention a fantastically mysterious open ended conclusion. I’m really looking forward to her next book in 2016!

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell 

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Rundell is the only non-YA title on my list, but it’s one I would urge people of all age to read. She’s got such a phenomenal talent with crafting words, like a true artist, she weaves them flawlessly and with passion and love. She refuses to talk down to her audience, and The Wolf Wilder is a captivating tale of wolves, snow and freedom, spearheaded by a wilful heroine who has more than a dash of Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belacqua about her. The wonderful words are beautifully accompanied by gorgeous inky illustrations that make this book the whole package – a children’s classic that we’ll have on bookshop shelves in fifty, maybe even a hundred years time.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

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My first ever Hardinge book, and a darkly twisting novel that swirled with mystery and deception, all pulled along by a brilliantly bright, determined heroine trapped in a male-dominated society that really cuts into the reader. She has such a lyrical, haunting way with words that felt hypnotic and made me so intensely jealous, if I’m honest. She pulls in elements of weird fantasy into a windswept period world, creating a sense of unease and paranoia so tangible it practically drips from every page.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness 

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Yup. A Patrick Ness book came out, so OBVIOUSLY it’s on my list. It has to be. He’s managed to yet again create a perfect YA novel – tongue firmly in cheek and fully mocking standard tropes and stereotypes from a lot of mainstream Young Adult lit. It’s all done with love though, and it also manages to tell a heart-wrenching coming-of-age story that beautifully looks at the loss of innocence, mental health and the power of friendships and family. Ness manages to blend contemporary drama with weird science fiction vibes seamlessly, shot through with wry humour and a bizarre, charming sense of warmth and sadness. It’s also so wonderfully Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

All Of The Above by James Dawson

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James Dawson has had two books out this year, and All of The Above was the author’s first foray into contemporary, and it’s totally astounding. Filled with chaotic, messy and brilliantly real characters with flaws and so much love, it managed to utterly break my heart and completely sucked me in, by allowing its teen characters to be rude and sexually diverse, shunning labels and focussing on emotions. The dialogue is hilarious and cuttingly witty, and the friendships are achingly beautiful, filled with fury and passion. It’s a triumph of a YA novel that doesn’t talk down to or patronise its audience in the slightest.

Remix by Non Pratt 

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Non’s second book is yet another testament to the fact that she might well have one of the best narrative voices in YA. She manages to make her characters speak exactly how me and my friends always used to (and still do, for that fact), and she tackles some important issues that affect teenagers on a regular basis with stark honesty and superbly hilarious heart. Not to mention, Remix is all about Festivals and Music, something that is very very close to my heart, and the book includes some brilliant nostalgia, band nods and musical feelings that made me squeal with delight.

Unbecoming by Jenny Downham 

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Jenny Downham novels don’t come along very often, but when they do, they’re really something special. Unbecoming is a huge mix of diversity, emotion and themes that should feel clunky and forced, but it simply flows and sings flawlessly. It’s a powerfully important book that touches on family and mental illness, as well as examining sexuality and race, all with respect and intelligence. It’s got so much heart and so much warmth to it.

The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle 

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Easily one of the most original, haunting, captivating and twistingly brilliant YA novels this year, The Accident Season is an absolute powerhouse of a debut novel, one that uses language like wind and magic, to create an unsettling dreamlike atmosphere that sucks you in totally and completely. It’s filled with diverse, whirring characters (Bea will always hold a special place in my heart), and a dark, creeping mystery that has one foot in Fantasy and one in Contemporary Drama. It’s simply outstanding writing.


RIGHT! That’s your lot! This was one of the hardest Top 10 lists I’ve ever pulled together, because honestly YA publishing has been so unbelievably on fire this year! From debuts like The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury and Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, to the latest instalments in some of my favourite series, like Lockwood & Co’s The Hollow Boy, or the final in Will Hill’s outstanding Department 19 horror series –  I can only hope that 2016 builds on this year and delivers even more. Although I have NO IDEA when I’ll get them all read!

Thanks for Reading, and be wonderful to each other.

D for Darran/Dinosaur/Decepticon

 

Lockwood & Co. – The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud

The third instalment in Stroud’s creeping spectre splashed ghost series is one that I’ve been waiting on tenterhooks for ever since book two, The Whispering Skull, ended with such an explosive cliff-hanger. These books are everything I ever dreamed of reading when I was about nine or ten, and even in my late twenties I devour them eagerly in a few short sittings, staying up into the small hours to try and get as much read as my brain will allow.

I need book four RIGHT NOW.

I need book four RIGHT NOW.

The Hollow Boy picks up a little after the events of The Whispering Skull, and a huge area of Chelsea has been cut off from London, due to an unexplained and deadly outburst of ghosts – hundreds roaming the area, leaving many ghost-touched and leaving London’s biggest and best agencies baffled. There’s no obvious source, so all that can be done is teams of agents sweeping the cordoned off zone on a nightly basis, dealing with the overwhelming number of smaller apparitions. London’s smallest agency, Lockwood & Co., have not been requested however, deemed too small to be of any use, much to the annoyance of brightly talented young Anthony Lockwood and his two assistants Lucy Carlyle and George Cubbins. As they continue trying to deal with the void left in the rest of the city by the other agencies prioritising Chelsea, the strained relationships between the highly talented young agents begin to reach fraying point. Lockwood’s cold distance is becoming increasingly more frustrating for Lucy, who is still trying to work out her rapidly expanding skills with hearing ghosts and spirits. But Lucy doesn’t just hear ghosts and death echoes, she can talk and communicate with the dead, a skill that is entirely unique as far as she knows. Eventually the stresses and pressures of overworking cause shifts in the structure of the tightknit Lockwood & Co., driving the wedge of uncertainty further between Lucy and Lockwood. When they’re finally asked to come into the Chelsea outbreak to help, the team are no longer operating with their usual haphazard synergy, and there’s something lurking underneath Chelsea that feeds on fear and distrust…

I cannot recommend this series enough.

I cannot recommend this series enough.

I think it’s no small thing to say that this might be one of the best series to come out in the MG age bracket since a certain bespectacled boy discovered he was a wizard. That’s right – Lockwood & Co is a series I just compared to Harry Potter. Not just that, but Percy Jackson, Skulduggery Pleasant – Stroud really stands with the big names. Lockwood’s chilly Sherlock-esque unflappable nature, George’s grubby but brilliant mind and Lucy’s emotionally charged narration all work perfectly to create a warm, diverse cast of characters that I genuinely care about so very much. Each book in the series stands alone superbly as a chilling ghost story, as well as a historical mystery, against a brilliantly realised world of paranormal darkness and a Victorian sense of melancholy, and they’re continuing to build a deep sense of history and mythology in The Hollow Boy. I yearn to know more and more about this universe after each chapter, dreaming of rapiers and rawbones. It balances creepy atmosphere with quirky, wry humour and intelligent plots, and this third instalment contains some of the most haunting moments of the series yet (crawling on all fours… *shudders*)

If you’ve got a strong reader with a love of clever, twistingly sophisticated ghost stories rooted around three vibrant characters then I cannot recommend the Lockwood & Co. Stories enough – they really are one of the greats.

Thanks for Reading…

D

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

Last year I lamented my own woeful writing skills when compared to the glowing writing talents displayed in Rundell’s multi-award winning Rooftoppers, a sublime children’s tale filled with heart and drama. So when The Wolf Wilder, her latest offering, promised a snowy adventure in revolutionary Russia, driven by wolves and a fiercely strident heroine, plus illustrations to boot, I knew we were in for a Children’s Classic of the future.

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Tell me that isn’t gorgeous. I dare you.

Feodora (Feo to you) and her mother live in the snowy forests of Northern Russia, distant from the prying eyes of civilisation. They’re Wolf Wilders, a mysterious group of independent forest folk who dedicate their lives to taking spoiled wolves from bored aristocrats and training them to become wild again – showing them how to hunt, how to run and how to howl. Revolution is blowing on the sharp winter winds though, and the Russian military is slamming an iron fist down on the freedom of people like Feo and her mother, preferring an orderly public to control and subdue. When soldiers arrive in the night, and Feo’s mother is taken into the freezing storm for crimes against the Tsar, only Feo, a reluctant young soldier named Ilya, and a her pack of wild wolves can hope to rescue her – although it means fighting an army, breaking into a citadel-like prison and maybe even sparking a revolution. All Feo wants is to live with her mother free to do as they please, and she’s willing to fight until the bitter end for it.

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Sublime black and white illustrations reflect the powerful words too.

Wow. Just wow. Where Rooftoppers was a sweet, touching tale, The Wolf Wilder is a swirling storm of power and emotion. Rundell has knocked it out of the park. This is seriously breathtaking writing and a book that stands so far out of the crowd that it refuses to be ignored.

Feo takes after so many independent and tenaciously wilful heroines before her (Lyra from Pullman’s His Dark Materials echoed throughout her), and her morals and bright, burning sense of right and wrong as vibrant and weave through the entire story. Her mother’s quieter wisdom helps aim the young girl with the wild precision of a hunting wolf, and the two of them have a fierce, beautiful relationship that made my heart ache and swell to read. Ilya is a superb companion for Feo too, gentle and softer, but just as idealistic and driven, and as we watch him blossom and begin to understand the different kinds of bravery that you can see in the world, we can’t help but love his open heart. One of the beautiful things about all of the characters in The Wolf Wilder is how expertly they shun any need for gender stereotypes, and I loved that any nod towards them is met with scorn and aggression by the protagonists. Of all the characters in the story though, the wolves are the ones who shine so beautifully, each with perfectly crafted personalities and instantly recognisable behaviours, they’re the literal representation of Feo and her mother’s world – helping to fight because they choose to, not because they’re forced to.

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I strongly recommend this beauty too…

One of the things that made The Wolf Wilder such a superbly delightful book to read is Rundell’s use of language, which is quite frankly, second to none. I remember being enthralled by Rooftoppers and how it wove words and sentences, and this book really takes her skills as a wordsmith and lets them explode and blossom. She uses words the way musicians use notes, the way artists use paint, like an extension of her. Metaphors and similes litter the narrative in a lilting, poetic style that creates a lyrical feel to the whole story which makes reading every page an orchestra experience of emotion. It’s this level of sophistication that really fights back against the idea that Children’s Books are simplistic, unsophisticated stepping stones. The Wolf Wilder is a work of literary beauty that tackles themes and ideas that are just as important to adults as they are to children – right and wrong, freedom, family, strength, bravery, sacrifice. It’s emotionally articulate and fiercely intelligent, refusing to simplify itself and remaining one of the best Children’s Books of the last few years because of it.

Combined with hauntingly beautiful ink illustrations, The Wolf Wilder is the full package. A book that is going to be read for generations, and in hardback it makes a gorgeous classic to keep and cherish.

Thanks for Reading.

D

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I’m not just saying all this nice stuff because she signed my book. BUT STILL ❤

UKMG Interview with SF Said – Author of Varjak Paw & Pheonix

This year, after the massive success of last year’s UKYA Extravaganza, is the very first EVER UKMG Extravaganza! For those of you who maybe don’t know, MG refers to Middle Grade fiction, more commonly in the UK known as 9-12, but it can straddle the line into Teen Fiction too, so more the 11-14 bracket in many cases. The UK has a wonderful history of books for this age – maybe even the best of all time, Harry Potter, and much like the UKYA community has picked up momentum in the last few years, the UKMG movement is just starting up right now online and through small events. For this blog tour, I’ve been locked in a steel cage deep underwater with SF Said, author of two Varjak Paw novels, as well as the Superhero-esque Phoenix. (Watch the book trailer HERE)

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Bonjour, Hola, Konichiwa and welcome! Thanks ever so much for coming and letting me fire off questions at you with all the intensity of a million stars. Why don’t you tell us a bit about your books?

Thank you! I’m looking forward to questions with all the intensity of stars, because Phoenix is all about the stars!

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The main characters in Phoenix are a human boy who has the power of a star inside him, and an alien girl who is the most brilliant fighter in the galaxy. It begins with the boy dreaming that the stars are singing to him, and it ends with the two of them facing the end of all worlds. So it’s a great big space epic, on the scale of something like Star Wars.

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The Varjak Paw books are built on a smaller scale, but I think they also have a superheroic element. They’re about a cat wants to become a great warrior. In his dreams, he learns a secret martial art known only to cats. And this helps him to survive on his own in a dark and dangerous city.

What made you first start to write books for younger readers? Was that something you actively went for?

I always knew I wanted to be some kind of writer, but I never found literary fiction very satisfying. Then at university, I read and re-read lots of books for young readers, like Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, and the mythic stories written by Alan Garner and Susan Cooper.

These were exactly the kinds of books I wanted to write: hugely powerful page-turning stories with brilliant characters, richly-imagined worlds, and big questions about life and how it should be lived. Books with a lot of depth and levels, which could be read at different ages in different ways. Modern myths, really. So that was what I set out to write.

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Varjak Paw is such a phenomenal character! Where did you dream up this idea of a martial artist cat?

Thank you! I have to admit, Varjak Paw didn’t begin with the idea of a cat doing martial arts. It began with me watching my own cat as he went outside for the first time, as a kitten. I started to write a story about a kitten going out on his own into a dangerous city. What was he going to need, to survive? The idea of a martial arts for cats evolved from there.

This martial art is called the Way of Jalal. There are seven skills: skills for hunting, skills for fighting, skills for stealth, and so on. They have names like Shadow-Walking, Slow-Time, and Moving Circles. They developed as the story developed, in response to the story’s needs. Story generally drives everything in my books.

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How was working with the massively talented Dave McKean? Did you have ideas for his illustrations in the book, or was it all his own work based on your words?

Dave McKean is one of my heroes, and has been ever since I read the comics he made in the 1990s. So on Varjak Paw, I was a bit in awe of him, and couldn’t quite believe he was working on my story. I just gave him the text, and it came back looking like it does in the finished book. All the incredible things he does – not just with pictures, but with design, typography, even the use of white space – all came from him.

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While I was writing Phoenix, though, we were having all sorts of adventures in Hollywood, trying to make a Varjak Paw movie. (Which still hasn’t happened, but if anyone out there has $15 million to spare, we can find a good use for it!) Anyway, we became friends and collaborators while doing this, so the process of making Phoenix was different.

This time I gave him all sorts of stuff to work with. Everything from space photography made by the Hubble Telescope, because Phoenix is set in space, to images of gods and goddesses, because the story makes connections between astral science and ancient myth. He told me later that the most useful thing I gave him was a CD of Sigur Ros music. I thought it sounded like the stars singing, and I told him if he could make illustrations that looked like the music sounded, they’d be perfect. Incredibly, he did – and they are!

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Phoenix is a bit of a change, and a bit of an older piece of fiction, where did that stem from?

I don’t think about ages when I write. I like the idea of books for everyone: stories that anyone can enjoy, whoever they are, however old they are, whatever gender they are. I’m aiming to write modern myths, as I say, and I think myths are ageless and timeless. They transcend all categories.

But I was definitely setting out to do something bigger and more ambitious with Phoenix; I wanted to take a step up in my writing. Because the story is all about the stars, the scale had to be huge. So it ended up three times the length of Varjak Paw.

That might make people think it’s older. But I’ve met 9 year olds who read Phoenix in a day, and teenagers who’ve done the same. It’s a big story, but I hope it’s a page-turning, thrilling story too.

Was it a challenge to create this alien universe to try and work within, or was it all fully formed in your brain tank?

It was a huge challenge, and it took me a long time! It took seven years to get Phoenix as good as I possibly could, which is always my aim with each book.

The hardest part was the mythic background to the story. The aliens in Phoenix believe that all the mythological gods and goddesses are really stars who come down from the sky. They take different forms in different times, but they’re always the same immortal beings, returning again and again through history. They call them the Twelve Astraeus.

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Originally, I wrote lots of material about the Twelve Astraeus, to explain this background. But it was impossible to write prose powerful enough to describe them. After all, gods and stars should be mysterious and awe-inspiring beyond words! Then I decided to describe them through illustrations. I gave Dave a list of the Twelve Astraeus, with their names and attributes in different mythologies (Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, Mesopotamian etc.) The images he created have exactly the sense of mystery and awe that I wanted.

I also wrote song fragments to go with the pictures, which give you hints about them. So when readers encounter the Astraeus Of The Sea, for example, they can work out for themselves that this is the being who’s been called Poseidon, Neptune, and so on. Even if they don’t, they’ll feel who he is, without being told. I find that much more powerful and evocative than ordinary prose – but it took me a long time to work out the best way to do it!

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How do you decide what things you can tackle in MG, and what’s best left for the YA sphere?

I’m probably not the best person to ask, because as I say, I don’t think about ages. I just try to write books that everyone can read.

I personally don’t see a vast difference between different categories of fiction. A great story is a great story. I read across all categories myself, and did when I was a kid. As soon as I could read on my own, I wanted to read EVERYTHING. And so now as a writer, I put everything I care about and everything I love into my books. And anyone who wants to read them is welcome.

Why is MG such an important age bracket of young readers? Why do you think it’s such a vital part of a child’s reading evolution?

I think the books we read when we’re young shape us and stay with us forever. So while I’m not a big fan of categories, I do think those books are the most important books of all.

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Watership Down is a book that changed my life. I read it when I was 8, and thought it was the best book I’d ever read. I remember thinking that one day, I wanted to try and write something even half as good as it. I re-read it when I was 35, and I thought it was even better! At 8, I’d seen a thrilling adventure story about rabbits; now I saw politics, philosophy, mythology, all working together on different levels.

It was amazing to realise how deeply it had shaped my own imagination. I can see the roots of everything I want to do as a writer in that book. So it changed my life, and I think most of us have had similar experiences in childhood. What could be more important than that?!

For the love of all that is pure, WHAT ARE YOU WRITING NEXT?!

I’m writing a book called TYGER. I can’t say too much about it, as my books always change a lot as I work on them. But I can tell you that it’s partly inspired by William Blake’s amazing poem The Tyger!

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If they made a film of any of your books, would you try and cast yourself in them?

Good heavens, no! I don’t even have pictures of myself on my books. I’d rather people engaged with the story without the writer getting in the way.

Tell us about your ideal writing environment. Is writing a full time deal for you?

Writing is very much a full time deal for me. I write in my local library. There are no distractions there, and everyone else is working, so I just get down to work. If I try to write at home, the temptation to look at the internet is just too big. Especially Twitter. I can always justify it as ‘research’. But if you really want to write, you need to immerse yourself in writing, and not do anything else.

Have you always wanted to write?

Yes. I’ve always loved books and stories, and I’ve always wanted to make my own.

What does the UKMG community mean to you? Is it exciting to be there to watch it as it takes its tiny first baby steps?

I think it’s a wonderful thing. I’m so excited about UKMG Extravaganza, and I would be even if I wasn’t taking part! When I started out, being a children’s writer was quite a solitary thing. Sometimes I’d meet other writers at publishing events, but that was about it. In everyday life, I didn’t meet many other people who loved children’s books or even took them seriously.

Now, I’m in constant conversation with them. I love the fact that people who love children’s books are talking to each other in events like UKMG Extravaganza, and on places like Twitter, through hashtag chats like #ukmgchat. And this isn’t just writers, but readers, bloggers, vloggers, booksellers, librarians, teachers – there’s no end to it. It’s brilliant being connected to such a thing, because it makes you feel like you’re not alone. There are thousands of other people who love books just as much as you do!

What UKMG authors make you happy? Who’s books should we all be rushing out to grab from shelves right this second?

So many! In terms of classics, I love Rudyard Kipling, E Nesbit, CS Lewis, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper…

More recently, I’d have to mention Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, Peter Dickinson’s The Kin – an epic sequence about human origins that I think deserves to be as well known as widely read as Michelle Paver’s Outcast books – which I also love! I think Jonathan Stroud is a fantastic writer. Francesca Simon’s The Lost Gods and Kate Saunders’s Five Children On The Western Front are two books that I think of as classics already. I could go on. And on…

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What books did you read growing up that inspired you as a writer and as a reader and as a human being?

Ursula Le Guin’s books inspire me in every possible way. The Earthsea books showed me that children’s literature could be great literature. The Dispossessed became a key book for me; I still re-read it every few years. Its portrayal of a society built on anarchist principles inspires me, as does its depiction of relationships built on equality. So it doesn’t just inspire me as a writer; it’s a book I aspire to live by.

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Do you get much fan mail? What’s your best response you’ve had from one of your readers?

I love hearing from readers. I’m a lot better at replying to comments on my website than I am to actual letters, for some reason. But any time anyone tells me that one of my books meant something to them – that’s amazing.

When I hear from people who say they didn’t like books before, but then they read one of mine and now they can’t stop reading – that’s just mind-blowing.

And when I hear from people who read one of my books as a child, kept it through their whole childhood, and now still enjoy it as adults – well, I don’t have words for that.

One of the nice things about MG is how engaging and excitable children are at that age – do you get out to many events with kids? Is that something you enjoy getting involved in?

I visit a lot of schools; about one a week on average at the moment. I visit both primaries and secondaries. I do enjoy it – it’s always good to meet readers, and see what they’re interested in. I always ask for book recommendations, and have found some great reads that way.

What would your Patronus be?

A librarian?

If they made an SF Said action figure, what accessories would it come with?

Portable tea mug to take to the library. Vellum paper and fountain pen with Havana ink for first draft. Laptop and printer for subsequent drafts. Headphones and iPod for all-important writing music. (The Cure for Varjak Paw; Sigur Ros for Phoenix; Godspeed You Black Emperor for Tyger!)

If you could be ANY mythical creature, what would you want to be?

A writer who can write a great book in just one go. Because that is a TOTALLY mythical creature!

Would you rather fight one-hundred duck sized horses or one horse sized duck?

I like the idea of tiny horses. I would want to be friends with them. Whereas I find the idea of a horse sized duck a bit threatening. That’s a very big duck.

What’s on your To-Be-Read pile?

There isn’t a To-Be-Read pile. There’s a To-Be-Read mountain. There are so many books I need to read, and I’m a slow reader, so realistically, I know I’m never going to read them all. I could never even list them all!

But some books currently in the mountain were written by other authors taking part in UKMG Extravaganza: Allan Buroughs’s Ironheart, Emma Carroll’s In Darkling Wood, Jo Cotterill’s Looking At The Stars, Abi Elphinstone’s The Dreamsnatcher, Candy Gourlay’s Shine, Julia Lee’s The Mysterious Misadventures Of Clemency Wrigglesworth, Helen Peters’s The Farm Beneath The Water, and many many more!


 

Thanks for being on the blog SF Said! Don’t forget to check out the #ukmgchat for more great recommendations and discussions about Children’s Literature.

And thanks for reading,

D

Things to look out for in 2015!

Greetings! I was recently flicking through The Bookseller’s rather fantastic feature on upcoming Children’s & YA books over the Summer and into the back end of this year, and there’s some very exciting releases! So, I thought I’d compile a little snapshot of books that you should keep an eye out for in the next EIGHT MONTHS. Now, some of these I’ve been lucky enough to have read already, such is the life of a Bookseller. However, I’ve plonked them on this list ANYWAY, because they’re fabulous books that you should definitely pick up when they go on sale. Originally this post was going to be 15 Books in 2015! But, yeah. Too many books. Sorry. I got lost.

We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen (12th of May, Andersen Press)

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When Phil Earle recommends me a book, it’s always a corker (see The Art of Being Normal), and he’s super passionate about this debut Middle Grade/Younger Teen title which can only mean it’s a mixture of heart and passion that will make waves. I’ve got a copy somewhere on my TBR pile, but other bookselling pals of mine are already raving about the sweet, heartfelt and touching plot, reminiscent of RJ Palacio’s Wonder.

Pre-Order Here!

In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll (2nd of July, Faber & Faber) 

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Already the author of two phenomenal MG titles (the creepsome Frost Hollow Hall & beautiful The Girl Who Walked on Air), Emma Carroll is returning this Summer with what sounds like another fantastic blend of magic and realism. It seems set to capture the quirky, folklorish environment that makes brilliant fairy stories like Michelle Harrison’s Thirteen Treasures so perfect. I’m expecting a brilliantly entertaining and gripping read for those long Summer evenings!

Pre-Order Here!

The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle (18th of August, Corgi)

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Already being hailed as this year’s We Were Liars, The Accident Season is another book that I have a proof of in my TBR pile that I’ve yet to get to, but again I’m very intrigued by the idea behind it. It seems like it’s going to bring in a painfully beautiful, melancholy narrative that will cause some pretty hard emotional reactions (especially from me, I cry at everything!). The jacket is beautiful, and early feelings seem to be overwhelmingly positive. It should be a great read!

Pre-Order Here!

Way Down Dark by J.P. Smythe (2nd of July, Hodder & Stoughton) 

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Very intrigued by this one, the first YA title from a hugely well respected Sci-Fi author. Normally I’m hesitant of adult authors hopping on the Teen Fiction bandwagon, but this book, the first in a planned trilogy, promises a claustrophobic spaceship setting that definitely ticks a big box for me, combined with murder and obsessive cults, so I’ll certainly be giving it a go as soon as possible. Love the jacket too… Might it feed my love of Sci-Fi Horror? Here’s hoping!

Pre-Order Here!

The Marvels by Brian Selznick (15th of September, Scholastic Press) 

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Brian Selznick is a stunningly creative writer, and I’d add him to this list without even knowing a synopsis of his next book. The author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, Selznick is unrivaled when it comes to fusing haunting, gorgeous illustrations with emotionally articulate and powerful stories. All I know about The Marvels is that it’s set in 18th Century London, and it weaves two seemingly separate stories together using 400 pages of what I’m sure will be astounding illustration and 200 pages of text.

Pre-Order Here!

Demon Road by Derek Landy (7th of August, Harpercollins) 

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I’ve always been a massive fan of Landy’s twisted, witty and downright explosive Skulduggery Pleasant series, which came to an end last year. His new series, planned as a trilogy, sees him up his writing to a YA level (which makes sense, since a huge part of his fanbase will have grown up with Skulduggery and are now teenagers and young adults). It looks like it’s set to be full of supernatural horror, twists and vibrant lead characters, all wrapped up in the dark sense of humour we’ve all come to know and love from Mr. Landy.

Pre-Order Here!

Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne (1st of August, Usbourne) 

After the brilliant success in the Paranormal Romance of Soulmates, followed by the brilliantly sharp contemporary The Manifesto on How To Be Interesting, it seems Holly Bourne is an author who can give any genre a good go. I’m already sold on the title, and the contemporary plot line is going to tackle anxiety and other mental health issues that I would love to see approached intelligently and with respect within the YA sphere. I’m expecting a strong, strident voice, with heart and humour.

Pre-Order Here!

The Tattooed Heart by Michael Grant (22nd of September, Electric Monkey) 

The second book in Grant’s brilliant, dark and shocking Messenger of Fear series, which managed to utterly captivate me in book one. If his GONE series proved one thing, it’s that he’s so superbly talented when it comes to developing creeping, unfurling mythologies and sudden, brutal and visceral shocks and twists. I’m sure we’re going to have some truly grotesque descriptive sequences and a bigger peak into the world and history of the Messengers.

The Unbecoming by Jenny Downham (3rd of September, David Fickling Books) 

It’s hard to believe that it’s been FIVE YEARS since Jenny Downham’s award winning You Against Me, so I’m very excited about a new novel from her. Very well known for her debut Before I Die (aka Now Is Good), Downham is a skilled writer at unfolding complex and beautiful emotions. The Unbecoming is going to be epic, covering 50 years and following three generations of the same family. I think we can look forward to seeing some heartbreak, some uplifting chapters and some painfully grounded tragedy, all with her trademark heart and hope.

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill (3rd of September, Quercus)

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The sophomore novel from the author of the YA Book Prize winner Only Ever Yours, this looks set to be just a dark, powerful and important. It looks like it’s going to be discussing and working with the ideas of rape, consent and victim blaming, so I’m expecting this to be pretty controversial, but also probably very necessary in today’s culture and political atmosphere. Louise has already proved that she’s not afraid of going after emotional and visceral subjects, and that’s going to continue.

Remix by Non Pratt (4th of June, Walker)

I reviewed this the other week right here, but I’ll reiterate what I said then – Non is one of the brightest shining stars of UKYA, and Remix is the perfect showcase of her talents for messy, realistic teenagers and perfectly formed, believable dialogue that snaps and crackles with youthful energy. Much like her debut, Trouble, Non is so brilliant at creating characters that I love and feel invested in, and this time she weaves in the energy and hopefulness of teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, all within the gloriously chaotic world of a Music Festival.

Pre-Order Here!

All of the Above by James Dawson (3rd of September, Hot Key Books)

This is set to be James Dawson’s first contemporary novel, but in his work in the YA horror sphere with Say Her Name and Under My Skinhe’s already proven he has a sharp talent for witty characters and brilliant, hilarious dialogue. All of the Above promises to be his rudest and most mature to date, but it looks like it’ll be examining anxiety and peer pressure, which I can only imagine will be portrayed beautifully and sensitively.

Pre-Order Here!

Silence is Goldfish by Annabel Pitcher (1st of October, Orion)

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Both My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece and Ketchup Clouds have been contemporary YA novels that have both completely absorbed me and emotionally wrecked me in different ways, showing that Award Winner Annabel Pitcher is a versatile and powerful writer. Silence is Goldfish is a brilliant title, and it looks like the book is going to be another great examination of growing up, and loss of innocence and the way our views towards family and adults change as we get older.

Pre-Order Here!

Darkest Night by Will Hill (4th of June, Harpercollins)

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Will Hill’s Department 19 series is one of my favourite YA series, and it’s finally coming to a close. Compulsive, gloriously gore-splattered Vampire fiction, I would recommend this to anyone who’s a fan of fast, intelligent horror and action. Will has already promised death and emotional turmoil in this final installment, where he carries on his combination of classical horror literature and pulse-pounding action.

Pre-Order Here!

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell (10th of September, Bloomsbury)

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The award winner of future Children’s classic Rooftoppers has turned to a snowy atmosphere for her next adventure, set in the harsh, cold Russian forests. Rundell is a masterful writer with a lyrical, beautiful writing style, and I can see her capturing this tale of harsh environments and loyalty, the story of a young girl and her mother against a murderous force in the woods, absolutely brilliantly. I’m sure it’s going to be uplifting and captivating and I cannot wait.

Pre-Order Here!

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness (27th of August, Walker)

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If you missed my glowing review the other day, let me tell you that Patrick Ness’ next novel is a phenomenal character examination that’s full of pain, emotion, hope and melancholy. Another stellar example of why he’s such a brilliant YA writer, his characters in The Rest of Us are so perfectly messy and realistic, and he approaches mental health and the uncertainty of growing up with intelligence and respect. He also plays on standard YA tropes and themes to perfect effect, mocking with just the right amount of adoration.

Pre-Order Here!

First Class Murder by Robin Stevens (30th of July, Random House) 

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Golly! Time for another caper from the fantastic detective duo that is Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, this time taking on a Murder on the Orient Express twist. The first two novels, A Murder Most Unladylike and Arsenic for Tea, have been roaringly good fun to date, and I can’t wait to see where Robin’s vibrant, intelligent detectives end up next! More hilarious use of Blyton-esque language and genuinely gripping and well formed mysteries will make this another gem of a children’s novel.

Pre-Order Here!

Another Day by David Levithan (30th July, Electric Monkey)

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Every Day is getting a sequel! Of sorts, at least. Another Day revisits the events of Levithan’s phenomenal novel, but retelling the story from the perspective of Rhiannon. Where the first book looked at the nature of the self, and what it meant to be you when things like race, gender and sexuality are stripped away, Another Day will look at what it is like to love someone who is always different. I’m expecting an emotionally electric and intelligent plot, using Levithan’s characteristic beautiful writing style to uncover some difficult truths and create some diverse and heartfelt characters.

Pre-Order Here!

 

This is just a handful of the brilliant YA and MG titles due put this year, but there’s loads more! Feel free to grab me on Twitter for more recommendations or book chat – @ShinraAlpha

Thanks for reading!

D

Arsenic for Tea (A Wells & Wong Mystery) by Robin Stevens

Golly, if you’re reading this then you’re an absolute brick for being so kind!

Arsenic for Tea - I love this simplistic style of jacket!

Arsenic for Tea – I love this simplistic style of jacket!

Sorry, after I read Robin’s fantastic debut, A Murder Most Unladylike last year (Book One in the Wells & Wong Mystery series) I spoke like that for at least a week. It was one of the freshest, most unique Middle Grade releases for years, brimming with fun and mystery, and when I heard it was set to be part of a series I was so pleased! Can Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong recreate the success of their first outing in Arsenic for Tea? Well, Watson, yes they can. Yes they jolly well can.

I love a book with a map.

I love a book with a map.

Hazel is spending her Summer holidays at Fallingford, the historic mansion home of her best friend and detective extraordinaire Daisy Wells, as well as Daisy’s family – Lord & Lady Hastings, her brother Bertie, her Uncle Felix and Aunt Saskia. Between all of their family politics, as well as guests arriving for Daisy’s fourteenth birthday, Hazel is starting to feel awfully homesick for her family in Hong Kong, but the arrival of Kitty and Beans, two girls from her dorm at Deepdean School for girls, helps to settle her nerves. Perhaps she can settle into this crumbling English mansion life and celebrate her precocious best friend’s birthday without incident?

A Wells Family Tree! Utterly Charming.

A Wells Family Tree! Utterly Charming.

No such luck, Watson. A late addition to the party arrives in the house, the slimy Mr. Curtis, and the atmosphere turns incredibly hostile. It’s obvious that he and Lady Hastings have something going on, and that ruffles everyone’s feathers – not to mention that Daisy is certain he’s only tricking her mother so he can get his hands on Fallingford’s numerous valuable works of art. When the afternoon of Daisy’s party comes around, the guests are assembled in the dining room for a children’s tea party (Daisy is outraged – she is not six years old). The party takes a sour note fast, though… And soon there’s a body in Fallingford with a lot of suspicion around it. The rain drives down harder and harder outside, cutting the historic home off from the police – Leaving The Wells & Wong Detective Society the only ones who capable of solving this murder most foul…

Book One - You don't need to read it to understand Book Two - But you should!

Book One – You don’t need to read it to understand Book Two – But you should!

More absolutely fantastic adventures from my favourite detectives! Robin has delivered yet another perfect balance in this novel, between mystery, humour and friendship. Her characters dance and leap about the page with such vivid, varied and crazed personalities – Daisy is as headstrong and determinedly brilliant as always, but in Arsenic for Tea, we get to see her falter and struggle with feelings that never cropped up in Book One, as her home and family are invaded by such horrible crimes. Hazel’s character development is coming along leaps and bounds, with confidence boosted in the face of A Murder Most Unladylike’s triumph, she’s now a much savvier and discerning detective. We also get some heart breaking and incredibly poignant glimpses into Hazel’s life as an outsider because of her racial background – distrusted or dismissed by many of the older members of the Wells family as being The Oriental. Robin works this into the story effortlessly, building the reader’s attachment to the intelligent, emotional and diverse narrator of the story. Arsenic for Tea has a pretty big cast of characters, but as each one comes under scrutiny from the Detective Society, we get chance to see their fully developed characters under some great pressures and stresses, and we get the important insight that no adult is perfect – Far from it in fact, and the girls learn some eye opening facts as the grown-ups unravel before their eyes. Adding Kitty and Beans to the story (present in Book One), lends a new dimension to the mystery too – Kitty is sarcastic but just as stubborn as Daisy herself, and Beans is just adorable, always terrified and wide eyed at the horrors around her, she’s such an innocent little thing, and it’s through her that we get a sense of just what the Detective Society are getting into. Detection of murders is dangerous, even if Daisy doesn’t realise that.

As always, the mystery element of Arsenic for Tea is properly thought out, intelligently and logically plotted, and filled with enough red herrings to keep the reader uncertain right up until the final few chapters. I had my suspicions, but couldn’t tie them together with evidence, and that really made me feel part of the story and one of The Detective Society myself! Again the “Enid Blyton does Agatha Christie” vibe shines through and it’s hilarious and utterly charming – and the language use is once again one of the points that makes the book bounce and sing in its dialogue. I have no idea where Robin digs up some of these terms, but they’re splendid and so much fun. The core of the story though, past mystery and murder and all that, is about friendship. Daisy and Hazel’s devotion to one another is one of my favourite fictional friendships in Children’s Fiction, and now that the proud Daisy trusts Hazel’s judgement (not that she’d ever admit it), their relationship has taken on a new aspect of mutual reassurance. They’re powerfully intelligent girls by their own rights, but together they’re unstoppable.

SQUEE.

SQUEE.

Good news, too! The next Wells & Wong Mystery is First Class Murder and will be out in July of this year!

Thanks for reading all, View-halloo!

D

P.S. You can follow Robin Stevens on Twitter just here.

Buy A Murder Most Unladylike!

Buy Arsenic For Tea!

Pre-order First Class Murder!