Let Books be Books

I grew up in the eighties, which was a great time to be a kid. I wore bright colors and ran around in the woods, loved dressing up my barbies (both new and hand-me-downs from my mom), dressing up myself, playing in my tree-fort and riding bikes around the block (well, cul-de-sac…I had no sense of direction and got lost the one time I tried to do round the block for real).

 

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Flannel lined jeans-a Maine fashion staple

I can’t remember once thinking that there was anything I couldn’t do because I was a girl or that there were things that were meant for boys and not for me.

 

Is this because the eighties was a better time? Or because my parents made sure I had non-gendered toys? Or because I had that special kind of dense self-confidence that meant it simply never occurred to me that I couldn’t be anything I wanted to be and anyone who said different was so much white noise? I don’t know.

Now it’s 2016. I have a son, and I’m worried because I keep seeing lists of ‘books for boys’ and they seem to be saying that if a book is about a girl, it isn’t for him. Like the girls have a secret club and he’s not allowed!

If someone had told me I couldn’t read books about boys when I was a kid, I would have looked at them like they had two heads. I mean The Hobbit, The Phantom Tollbooth, Where the Wild Things Are, The Book of Three, I loved ALL of those books. Will my son have to miss out on Matilda or Harriet the Spy or Ruby Redfort?

I’m being a bit tongue in cheek, because he’s only five and currently loves reading anything he can get his hands on. And I hope he’ll continue to read widely as he grows up. But I do worry that the people who market books are putting up walls between boys and girls  without really thinking about it and the harm it can do.

Reading about people different from ourselves is a huge part of building compassion, empathy and understanding. I remember reading Melvin Burgess’s Doing It when I was in my early 20s and just going ‘ah ha’ so that’s what the boys were going through in high school! It was a revelation, and I wish I’d read it as a teen. AND I hope that my son is that age he’ll read books about what girls are going through so he can understand them.

So this is me, as a writer, reader and a parent adding my little voice to the crowd asking publishers and marketers and everyone building lists of books for boys to Let Books Be Books. Let kids find the stories that interest them without narrowing their choices by adding labels that really don’t need to be there.


If you are interested in reading more about this subject, here are a few links:

Let Books Be Books

Unsuitable for Boys by Tamsyn Murray

My Boy and His Books by Tessa

Boys Could Enjoy Stories About Girls and Vice Versa If We’d Only Let Them by Robin Stevens

How Do We Get More Boys Reading (Clue: Boy Books Aren’t the Answer) by Tricia

 

Boys vs Girls by Shannon Marie Jones

 

Happy Valentine’s Day

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, too much romance makes me squeamish BUT in honor of St Valentine I offer a review of my favorite, most reread, I’m-actually-in-love-with-this-book book of all time: Diana Wynne Jones’ Deep Secret.


 

DeepSecret

The cover of my copy

Rupert Venables is a Magid.

It’s a Magid’s job to oversee what goes on in the vast Multiverse. Actually, Rupert is really only a junior Magid. But he’s got a king-sized problem. Rupert’s territory includes Earth and the Empire of Korfyros. When his mentor dies Rupert must find a replacement. But there are hundreds of candidates. How is he supposed to choose? And interviewing each one could take forever.

Unless…

What if he could round them all up in one place?

Simple!


Where do I start? I first got my hands on this book in 2004 and have re-read it at least once a year since then. It is my go-to comfort book when I’m feeling unwell or need a pick-me-up after reading something sad.

Deep Secret isn’t a sweeping fantasy epic, but a book about every day, even bureaucratic magic. I love poor Rupert Venables, the multiverse’s youngest magid. It’s so funny to read about the hum drum annoyances he faces trying to go about his magical tasks and keep the many worlds from spinning out of control.

I also love Maree Mallory, the second narrator. A dour pessimistic soul, Maree’s voice is everything I strive for in my own writing. She is as real to me as a best friend and I often wish I could invite her over for a cup of tea and cake. Her triumph against a truly wicked step-aunt makes me cheer (sometimes aloud) every single time.

Deep Secret is funny and fantastic and utterly charming. If you haven’t read it, do so now. If you have read it, do so again!

Happy Valentine’s day, book-baby!

 

Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue

My latest book, Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue is officially out today!

I’m having a glamorous pajama party at home with my daughter while she ‘helps’ me work on the outline for my next book. It’s a bit of a slog at the moment, so it is very nice to see The Impossible Clue out in the world and be reminded that ‘yes, I can do this.’

When I wrote my first book, I assumed that writing would get easier. In some ways it does. It took me 20 drafts to finish Dreamer Ballerina, and only 11 to finish The Impossible Clue. I’m better at finding problems and fixing them now. I still struggle with most of the same old worries and false starts when I’m working on those first drafts. But, I suppose, with experience comes the knowledge that, even though it feels like the book will never come together, if I just keep writing, one word at a time, it will.

If you do get a copy, I hope you enjoy it! Alice is a really fun character to hang out with. Happy reading!

Writers Live in the Future

One of the weird things about being a writer is how long everything takes. Publishing is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue comes out this month (actually, it’s been seen out in bookshops already!) but I finished writing it long ago. In fact, I’ve already finished the first draft of Alice Jones: Book 2 and am in the process of outlining Alice Jones: Book 3 in the hopes that it gets picked up as well.

So how long is long? I’m sure it differs from house to house and book to book, but for me I started writing Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue at the beginning of 2014 and signed a contract with Chicken House in the Autumn. Then there were layers of rewriting and editing, title changes and cover design until it was done (August-ish 2015) and ready for release.

Of course, books don’t just get released when they’re done. Releases are scheduled to fit into the publisher’s calendar, to make sure all of their books don’t come out at once. Mine is officially out months later on 4 February 2016. That’s about a year and a half from when Chicken House bought the manuscript* and over two years from when I started writing the first draft.

On the one hand, it can be frustrating to wait so long to see your work make it to print. On the other, it gives you time to work on your next book. I started writing Alice Jones Book 2 (about the mysterious, perhaps ghostly, problems plaguing The Beryl Theater) while my editors were busy working on Book 1. And when I got stuck working on Book 2, I’d daydream about ideas for Book 3.

Seeing The Impossible Clue in a bookshop for the first time (yesterday!) was thrilling, but it was also like traveling back in time to visit an earlier version of myself. I remembered where I was when I started writing, and all of the fun and frustrating times I had helping Alice solve the mystery of the invisible scientist, and then it was time to go back to the future where Book 2 and 3 are waiting to be finished.


*This was an extra long incubation period, probably because I had a baby in the middle of things and Chicken House scheduled in some buffer time just in case. I believe one year from purchase to publication is more average.

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

One of the best things about being an author is that reading is part of my job. I have to read all the latest MG titles, and the classics and clever mysteries. Gotta keep up with the industry. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

I bought Katherine Woodfine’s The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow while I was researching MG mysteries. I loved the title, but the cover! The cover is glorious (illustrated by Júlia Sardà). I had to have it.

Being busy editing and writing I didn’t get around to reading it right away. So, when I found out Ms Woodfine had given my publisher an amazing cover quote for Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue I bumped The Clockwork Sparrow to the top of my TBR list and dove in.*


ClockworkSparrow

You are cordially invited to attend the Grand Opening of Sinclair’s department store!

Enter a world of bonbons, hats, perfumes and MYSTERIES around every corner. WONDER at the daring theft of the priceless CLOCKWORK SPARROW! TREMBLE as the most DASTARDLY criminals in London enact their wicked plans! GASP as our bold heroines, Miss Sophie Taylor and Miss Lilian Rose, CRACK CODES, DEVOUR ICED BUNS and vow to bring the villains to justice…


The Clockwork Sparrow is a delicious chocolate box of a book. Not a plain bar or a bag of mixed pieces, but a glorious assortment box with gold foil and velvet lining and one of those little menus that describe each beautifully decorated chocolate in mouth-watering detail.

Set in the late 1800s around the opening of the impossibly grand department store, Sinclair’s, The Clockwork Sparrow follows the story of Sophie the hat girl and her friends as they try to discover the secret behind who stole Mr Sinclair’s priceless Clockwork Sparrow from the opening night display.

It’s written in third person and switches between the main characters’ points of view. Usually I’m not a fan of this style, but Woodfine has really used it to her advantage, each character is well-rounded and interesting AND lets us see a different side of Sinclair’s. I loved being shown the stables and storage rooms as much as the lavish shop floors.

I read the book in two sittings, and looked up to tell my husband several times that I wished I had written it. That’s the problem with reading as a writer. So much book envy. But, I guess I wouldn’t have gotten such pure enjoyment if I’d had to write it myself. And now I get to look forward to reading the sequel, The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, to come out in 2016, without doing any work at all!


*Since Ms Woodfine gave me a cover quote, I can’t say this review is 100% impartial. But I did buy this book before the quote and, as always, if I hadn’t enjoyed it I wouldn’t have reviewed it.

Only one month until Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue

Happy 2016!

My latest book, Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue is coming out next month! It’s the first in a series of detective stories featuring Alice Jones, a street-savy kid with a mathematical mind. Here are five of my favorite detectives, all of whom have helped inspire Alice.

  1. Nancy Drew-The original girl detective. Nancy Drew books started my life-long love of mysteries and reading in general. I loved Nancy, she was smart and resourceful and, though she had a lawyer for a dad, always solved her cases on her own.
  2. Hercule Poirot-Agatha Christie’s first detective. As a child, I think Poirot appealed to me because he wasn’t strong or daring or even particularly brave. He was clever, and he used his ‘little grey cells’ to get the better of the bad guys.
  3. Encyclopedia Brown-Another brain-based sleuth, Encyclopedia Brown books gave me my first taste of being the detective myself. Each short story had its solution at the end of the book. I think I got one right, once. I loved Sally (Encyclopedia’s partner, the strongest girl in the 5th grade) and Bugs Meany, their nemesis.
  4. Lord Peter Wimsey-The gentleman detective, Wimsey often used people’s assumptions that he was an aristocratic fool to his advantage. Alice uses the fact that she’s only 12 in a similar way.
  5. Philip Marlowe-A private eye rather than a detective, trying to do the right thing in a wrong world. I loved his bruised morality and how he tried to do the right thing, even when the choice was murky and hard.

Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue will be released 4 February, but you can read the first chapter or pre-order (UK/US) a copy now.

 

Demon Road by Derek Landy

I don’t read a lot of YA, mostly because I find romance *icky*. (I have the heart and soul of an eight-year-old.) Sure a hint of romance might be ok, but anything more than a quick peck after a long courtship and I’m hiding behind my fingers whispering ewwww!

BUT, I made an exception for Derek Landy. I loved the Skulduggery Pleasant Series so much, so when his new book Demon Road came out, I HAD TO HAVE IT. And then I couldn’t read it because I was finishing my own draft of the second Alice Jones Mystery.

But I finished my draft! And I devoured Demon Road in two days. (It would have been one, but I had to feed my children.)  Here’s the blurb:


51evp5grutL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Full of Landy’s trademark wit, action and razor sharp dialogue, DEMON ROAD kicks off with a shocking opener and never lets up the pace in an epic road-trip across the supernatural landscape of America. Killer cars, vampires, undead serial killers: they’re all here. And the demons? Well, that’s where Amber comes in…Sixteen years old, smart and spirited, she’s just a normal American teenager until the lies are torn away and the demons reveal themselves.

Forced to go on the run, she hurtles from one threat to another, revealing a tapestry of terror woven into the very fabric of her life. Her only chance rests with her fellow travellers, who are not at all what they appear to be…


What I love about this book is that you jump in and hit the ground running. The first line sets the pace  (seriously, go check it out) and things don’t slow down. Amber is on a supernatural road trip and every stop on the Demon Road, we get to deal with another villain from our worst nightmares. It’s such a clever set up, because it means the plot gets to have vampires, wicker-witches, demons AND a serial killer or two without feeling crowded.

Besides the sheer joy Landy obviously takes in writing scares, he’s also crafted a real and likable cast of characters. I love Amber, and how she has to deal with her inner demons (literally). A girl after my own heart, Amber has no time for blossoming romance while on the run for her life. Her response to an attempted kiss is priceless.

I’m going to cut this short before I squee all over the page. I recommend this book if you like genuine scary stories. There is blood, gore and major peril. Read at your own risk.

Writing, with Children

Recently Girls Heart Books had a great blog post by Sophia Bennett on the best writer’s rooms and sheds. I had a serious case of shed envy. Or tower envy. (Seriously, check out the tower!) I do dream that one day, I’ll have a little room of my own to write in, but for now I do not.

I thought it would be fun to share the other side of the writing-space coin, so here is where I write: On the couch, in our living room, amidst a sea of chaos and usually with a baby somewhere on my person. And now for the glamour shots


Writing with Baby2 Here you can see I’ve got my coffee in easy reach, and tissues (for me or the baby or both? I don’t remember). There’s an old pillow that my son has used as a landing pad one too many times and a toy horse sitting on top of the page proofs Chicken House sent me in the background. BUT the baby is sleeping! Glorious, glorious day.


Writing with Baby3

In this photo you can see me trying to give my daughter her own computer to ‘write’ on. She is far too smart for that. You can also see my hoover sitting where I left it to ‘remind’ me I need to use it. I am very good at ignoring it. In the far background, you can see the pile of coats, scarves and notes from school that gather by our front door.


Writing with Baby1And finally, I’ve given in. The baby is ‘helping’ me write. Any typos are hers, all the brilliant bits are mine.

I’ll be honest, I don’t get a lot done some days.

But I think that’s the life of a writer whether you’ve got a shed or not. I’m always looking for that one gadget that’s going to make writing a breeze (a wireless keyboard, fancy writing software, a dictaphone) but in my heart I know I’m looking for something that doesn’t exist. No matter how many helpful tools you have, you still need to do the hard part. The most important thing isn’t where you write, or what you write with, it’s that you sit down and do it!

(…but I still want that tower.)


The Cardturner by Louis Sachar

One of my favorite authors is Louis Sachar. As a kid I laughed myself silly over Sideways Stories from Wayside School. And as an aspiring writer Holes blew my mind. The plot was so intricate it was almost sculptural. (And as a reader, Holes is just a really good read). SO, when The Cardturner came out, I rushed out to buy it. This was in 2010. It’s sat on my shelf for 5 years. To be honest, I think I was reluctant to read it because I loved Holes so much and I was afraid The Cardturner wouldn’t live up to my expectations.

I finally bit the bullet and read it, and kicked myself for not doing it sooner.


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The summer holidays are looking bleak for Alton Richards. His girlfriend has dumped him for his best friend. He has no money, no job, and, if that wasn’t bad enough, his parents are insisting that he drive his great-uncle Lester to his bridge club four times a week to be his cardturner – whatever that means. Lester Trapp is old, blind, very sick, and very rich.

But Alton’s parents aren’t the only ones trying to worm their way into Lester Trapp’s good graces. They’re in competition with his longtime housekeeper, his alluring young nurse, and the crazy Castaneda family, who seem to have a mysterious hold over him.

Alton soon finds himself intrigued by his uncle, by the game of bridge, and especially by the pretty but shy Toni Castaneda.


It’s a fun story, and while the plot may not be as complex as Holes, it did something else that was kind of amazing: It made me want to learn to play bridge. Sachar writes scenes of his characters playing bridge, like a fantasy writer writes a sword fight. It sounded fun and exciting and I’m seriously looking into Bridge Clubs in my area.

Holes will probably always be my favorite Louis Sachar book, but The Cardturner was a great read too and I’m so glad I finally picked it up.

What I’ve learned from National Novel Writing Month

NaNo-2015-Participant-Banner

Happy NaNoWriMo everyone!

For anyone who doesn’t know, November is National Novel Writing Month. A month when writers across the world sit down at their computers and challenge themselves to write a novel (minimum 50,000) in 30 days. You are allowed to bring notes and outlines to the table, but all of your actual writing starts on November 1st.

To some people, this might sound like a horrible idea. But to me, it’s one of the best motivational months of the year. As a writer, I am great at editing and rewriting, but first drafts are like pulling teeth. It’s so hard to fill those endless blank pages without fretting and going back to fix all of my (real and imagined) mistakes. NaNoWriMo gives me permission (or rather, it forces me) to ignore my inner critic, get my butt in my chair, fingers on the keyboard and write.

After participating for many years (sometimes officially, sometimes playing along by myself at home), here are four of the things I’ve learned doing NaNo that I use the rest of my writing year as well.

  1. Make time for your writing. This may seem obvious, but it’s so important. You’re never going to write anything if you keep waiting until all of your other chores are done. Make writing a priority. Set a timer, kick everyone else out of your room, leave the dishes in the sink, turn off the internet (I’m looking at you twitter) and write.
  2. Set mini goals. 50,000 words in 30 days is daunting. Break it down to achievable chunks. You need to write about 1,667 words a day (or 2334 if you want to take the weekends off). That sounds like a lot, and on the first few days it feels like a lot. But by week 2, 1667 words a day is a breeze. The rest of the year, I do my best to write 500-1000 words a day. It adds up fast and, even if the word are awful, I know I’m making progress. Writing is a muscle, exercise it!
  3. Disable your delete key. Stop judging yourself. First drafts are awful. Sure there may be moments of brilliance, but for the most part they are like trudging uphill through a stinking bog of clunky dialogue, typos, wrong plot turns and characters who flipflop all over the place. The most important thing about a first draft is getting it out of your head and onto the page, and if you keep hitting delete every time you make a mistake you’ll be stuck in that swamp for years.
  4. Put it away. Just because you gave yourself permission to write an awful first draft DOES NOT mean you should send it out into the world as soon as you type The End. Take a break, write something else and then come back to edit and rewrite with fresh eyes.

If you are interested in joining NaNoWriMo check out their website! It’s a lot of fun, with a great community of fellow writers to give you support and encouragement. Maybe I’ll see you there!