Monthly Archives: September 2015

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Book of Learning’

The debut novel of E.R. Murray, The Book of Learning, published earlier this month by Mercier Press, is a complex and fast-moving tale. Set between West Cork and Dublin, it makes great use of the urban/rural divide, showing its heroine Ebony Smart at home in nature and at sea in the big city, unsure of herself and having to learn a new way of life when she is transplanted from one place to the other after the death of her beloved grandpa. Unluckily for Ebony, this sad event takes place on her twelfth birthday, and even more unluckily, she barely has time to catch her breath before her whole life is uprooted.

Image: ermurray.com

Image: ermurray.com

Learning that she has an aunt she’d never heard of before, and told by a sniffy ‘Judge’ that she must go to live with her instead of being allowed to stay on her grandfather’s farm where she has lived all her life up to that point, Ebony finds herself in an entirely new world. Living on the top floor of an old Georgian house in the heart of Dublin city, one in which all the windows are nailed shut and every creaking door and whispering floor has a different secret to tell, she is at a loss what to do next. Her ‘uncle’ Cornelius – his relation to Aunt Ruby somewhat dubious – seems more animal than human, and her aunt is full of strange tales, trying to get Ebony to believe she is part of a group of people who can reincarnate, but that something dark and unexplained has begun to threaten their way of life. She meets a strange, shadowy man named Icarus Bean who warns her that she is not safe, along with a boy named Zach Stone who seems to have unexplained powers (and who becomes her only human friend – but can he be trusted?) but she relies completely for company on her brave, intelligent rat, Winston, whose constant presence is her only comfort.

In her aunt and uncle’s study, Ebony comes across a small book bound in metal covers. Calling itself The Book of Learning, a panel on its back cover reads ‘Property of Ebony Smart’. This, naturally, comes as some surprise; Ebony has never seen it before. She smuggles it out, determined to get to the bottom of its secrets. It soon transpires that the book shows different things to different people; where it explains something of Ebony’s past history to her (though, naturally, leaving much unexplained!) it seems to show something completely different to Zach, something painful and frightening. Through using the book, and through uncovering some of the secrets of 23 Mercury Lane, her new home, Ebony learns she must get to the bottom of a murder which has been committed. The only problem is, she’s not sure which murder. She fears it may be that of her grandfather, who – despite medical opinions which say he died of natural causes – she feels was killed, and by someone she knows. Then, chances are the book is talking about another murder altogether, one rather closer to home – the murder of Ebony herself, carried out in one of her past lives. But how to solve a crime committed over two hundred years before?

As it becomes clear that the Order of Nine Lives is not a figment of Aunt Ruby’s imagination, and that Ebony not only belongs to it but has lived before, many times over, the mysteries surrounding it grow ever more complex. Eventually Ebony is led back ‘home’ to Cork, where a strange black rose planted and cultivated by her grandfather turns out to be more than a simple flower, but the key to her destiny – but can she put the puzzle together in time to save herself, her family, and Winston, who has been kidnapped by person or persons unknown?

My favourite aspect of this book was the settings it used. It’s clear that the author loves both Dublin city and the countryside of Cork, and this affection comes through in her evocative descriptions of Ebony’s house, St Stephen’s Green (where Zach lives), the Botanic Gardens (where the headquarters of the Order of Nine Lives is located) and the National Library (where Ebony goes to research her past selves), as well as the natural beauty of her grandfather’s farm. The perilous voyage Ebony takes near the book’s conclusion is grippingly described, and the details of countryside life add a wonderful air of realism to the Cork-based scenes. However, I admit to a certain level of confusion in relation to the mythology of the families who have the power to reincarnate – it took me several reads of the relevant parts of the book to fully get to grips with the system of reincarnation (which takes place in a ‘sky world’ named the Reflectory, access to which is supposed to be tightly restricted) and I wasn’t entirely sure of the connections between the Nine Lives families and the balance of power in the universe. I also felt, at times, that Ebony has a dangerous tendency to ignore her ‘inner voice’ (which seems to pop up just when she needs it but which, nonetheless, is normally jettisoned in favour of her doing what she feels like) which is not always advisable! Having said that, she is a brave, undaunted character, determined to get to the truth surrounding her grandfather and herself, loyal and devoted to her friends (particularly Winston, who I loved), and I had to admire the way she copes with the sea-change in her life.

There’s enough intrigue (and motorbikes, and boats, and accidents, and gruesome deaths) here to keep boys entertained, and enough hard-nosed, determined, hot-headed and brave displays of girly brilliance here to keep girls hooked, and enough complexity to challenge even the most accomplished of readers. The Book of Learning is the first part of a trilogy, and it’ll be interesting to see What Ebony Does Next  – and who will survive to join her!

So, Don’t All Unfollow Me at Once…

…but I have a little bit of news.

It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention that I have been less assiduous about my blogging schedule over the past few months, and particularly so over the past number of weeks. This isn’t because I don’t want to blog anymore, or because I’ve run out of things to say, but because my life has taken an unexpected and amazing turn.

A few weeks ago, dear readers, my little family expanded by one. My husband and I were delighted, relieved and overwhelmed to welcome our tiny baby to our lives, a baby who has already transformed our home and taken over our hearts and who we love with everything we have. We kept knowledge of the baby’s arrival very quiet, not because we weren’t proud and delighted and excited, but because I was superstitious and nervous and almost scared to get too happy, in case this beautiful thing would be taken away as quickly and miraculously as it had arrived. For I had been told, often and by several doctors, that I would never conceive or carry a child; my body was inadequate, incapable and barren. I would need help, if I was to have any chance. It was vanishingly unlikely to happen naturally, or so we believed, and my husband and I had given up all hope. But we proved them all wrong.

Beyond all our dreams, we were blessed and we have continued to be blessed, and our beautiful child is currently in a carrycot, awaiting an evening feed.

Photo Credit: Estevam Romera via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Estevam Romera via Compfight cc

Anyone who has had a child will agree that when they arrive, your life is taken over completely by getting used to their routine, settling into a new way of life, and resetting your family’s body clock in order to accommodate a 24-hour schedule which sees you awake (and not minding at all) between 1.30 and 4.30 in the morning, napping during the afternoons, and keeping a watchful eye out for hunger cues and signs of nappy-related distress. This does mean that stuff like work, blogging, washing, getting dressed in matching clothes and generally functioning as an adult is a bit challenging, and so I’m here to tell you that things will be a little patchy around here for the next while. I’ll be checking in, and I’ll post when I can, and there will be the occasional book review, and I’ll keep you updated with bookish news (on that note, there’s nothing to share at the moment; the glacial wheels of publishing continue to turn, incrementally, and the slow processes which underpin the book trade are still taking place – not that you’d know), but there won’t be a regular blogging schedule.

I hope y’all will understand.

I won’t be sharing photos of my baby online, nor will I be sharing the name my husband and I chose, nor the gender of our child, for privacy reasons. I’m taking this opportunity to ask anyone who knows me in real life to keep any photographs they may have of our child, and any information about our baby (including names) private. However, anyone who wishes may email me if they’re curious and – if they’re willing to wait for an answer, and to be bound by these conditions! – I’ll privately share some information about our new arrival.

Life is changed, changed utterly, and it’s wonderful. It will take me some time to find a new balance, but I’m sure I’ll get there eventually. I hope you’ll stick around for the next phase of my journey, and that you’ll be here to share the ups and downs of my writing life as my publication date draws nearer, and that you’ll bear with me as things get a little fragmented and chaotic around here.

But that was ever the case in Clockwatching… towers – things have always been a little unpredictable in this neck of the woods. This is simply another turn in the road, the sharpest and most exciting one yet, and I can’t wait to see what’s coming.

So, it’s ‘farewell’ for now. It’s a sincere ‘thank you’ for your support and interest so far. It’s a ‘stay tuned!’ for future news, and it’s a huge ‘hello’ from the tiny bundle which has brought such joy (and sleeplessness) to my life, and my husband’s, over the past number of weeks.

And it’s this.

 

 

Interview with E.R. Murray, author of ‘The Book of Learning’!

What a blogging coup I have for you today: an interview with the fabulous E.R. Murray, author of the recently published The Book of Learning (Mercier Press)! A fabulous Middle Grade fantasy about Ebony Smart, a young girl who discovers a family secret – one with the power to change her life (or lives?) completely – and a mystery which risks destroying the existence of everyone and everything she loves, The Book of Learning is a fast-paced adventure against time itself. Armed only with her own savvy, and with her pet rat Winston along for the ride, Ebony must race to find the answers she seeks before her family (including herself) is wiped from existence…

Give it up for E.R. Murray, everyone!

Image: inkwellwriters.ie

Image: inkwellwriters.ie

SOH: First things first: Ebony discovers during the course of her adventure that there are people in her family with the power to reincarnate. Where did your interest in reincarnation come from? Do you find it a spooky idea, or an exciting one?

ERM: It might sound a bit morbid, but I’ve always been fascinated with death – the possibilities of what might happen, as well as the ways in which people deal with death. I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures too, and I love hearing about unusual beliefs, behaviours and rituals. One of my favourite reads as a child was National Geographic! I guess The Book of Learning is an amalgamation of these two interests – though it wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to write a good story.

Reincarnation is such an exciting concept – and so alien to the society we live in. I grew up in an atheist family in a multi-cultural neighbourhood, so I was surrounded by various religions – Islam, Sikhism, Christianity in various forms, and Judaism – from an early age. At school, we would always celebrate various festivals and beliefs throughout the year, so thinking from lots of different viewpoints was a natural part of everyday life.

I remember we did a project about reincarnation when I was about ten years old. I thought it was incredible how so many people around the world, from ancient times to modern, could believe in this concept – and in so many different ways. I don’t believe I will be reincarnated – but it might be fun if I was proved wrong!

(P.S. There’s a great book called Sum by David Eagleman that contains 40 tiny stories, each offering a different scenario for what might happen after we die – I highly recommend giving it a read!).

SOH: Did Ebony herself, or her mysterious powers, emerge first in your imagination when writing The Book of Learning, or was she always inextricably linked to her other-worldly ability?

ERM: The character of Ebony definitely came first. Her voice – and that of Icarus Bean – was very strong, and the fantasy adventure grew around them and with them, rather than me trying to make their characters fit a story I wanted to tell.

I’d just moved to Dublin when these characters began to form, and as I explored the city, they grew rather noisy in my head and I had to start writing about them. Dublin was the perfect backdrop, and the city started to infiltrate my story too; it became its own character, in a way.

After a while, I realised I wanted the story to be about reincarnation, and I had the term ‘Nine Lives’ in my head – but I expected that to be the title of the book. It was only when I was so far into the story that I realised I was writing a trilogy.

Image: ermurray.com

Image: ermurray.com

SOH: I love that Ebony has such a deep connection with her dearly beloved grandpa. Grandparents are such an important part of a child’s family, and can play a vital role in a child’s life both in reality and in books. Which fictional grandpa (or grandparent! Grandmas are important, too) is your favourite, besides Grandpa Smart?

ERM: My favourite of all time has to be Grandpa Joe from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I love the way he spins tales, and is full of fun and adventure. I also loved Mr Tom Oakley from Goodnight Mr Tom, who isn’t technically a grandpa, but certainly has all the qualities. I also think Oisin McGann’s Mad Grandad character is brilliant – though I didn’t get to read about him until I was an adult. My grandparents were all dead before I was born, and I would have loved to have granddads like these!

SOH: Pick five adjectives to describe your heroine, Ebony Smart.

ERM: Feisty, brave, determined, stubborn, trusting.

SOH: Who would you cast as your characters if there was to be a movie of The Book of Learning?

ERM: Ooh, this question is fun! OK, here goes…

Christina Ricci would have made an excellent Ebony Smart, but we’d need a time machine. Is that allowed? Icarus Bean would be played by Robert Downey Jnr. He’d do scary really well (and it’s nothing to do with the fact that I’d love to meet him. Honest). I’d pick Timothy Spall for Uncle Cornelius, and Meryl Streep for Aunt Ruby. Ezra Miller would perform a memorable Zach Stone and as for Winston, the rat? I’m not too hot on ratty thespians but I’m open to suggestions!

SOH: Give us an insight into your busy life, and how you fit your writing around your other commitments. Do you have any ‘rituals’, or do you simply write with the flow of your Muse, or none of the above?

ERM: I’m at my most alert and most creative in the morning – give me a 5am start over a 2am splurge any day! As I’m juggling lots of writing deadlines and freelance projects, I simply prioritise and give the best part of my day to whatever the most pressing project might be. Then I move onto the next most important project of the day, and another, until I have the day’s to-do list completed. I’m extremely organised, and I compartmentalise my projects into blocks of time, so I can be flexible – there are a lot more interruptions in the countryside than you might think. Escapee cows, for instance!

A typical day for me right now is 9-13 hours at the computer, six or seven days a week. That’s four hours writing or editing one book, then the rest freelancing and promotional stuff – blog posts, interviews, etc, – that I slot in as they come up. I do try and take one day off a week as I think downtime is unbelievably invaluable – it’s when you unravel plot issues and character inconsistencies. But this is proving more and more difficult at the moment as I’m launching one book, editing another, and writing another – all by Nov 1st – on top of my freelancing.

The only ritual I have, really, is to make sure I get a decent amount of exercise every day. I have a big dog that happily reminds me it’s time to do our usual 3-mile walk by sticking his wet nose on me when he decides I’ve been at the computer too long! Sometimes we do the walk twice. I also swim, go to the gym, and do yoga. It’s to balance all the sitting time and helps clear the mind.

I also take chunks of time off for travel when I can, and I have lots of working holidays when things pile up – the beauty of my writing and freelance work is that I just need my computer and internet access. I find that a change of scenery is important if I’m to keep up the momentum.

SOH: You have another book, a YA novel, which is being published next year (Caramel Hearts). How on earth do you manage to work on two novels at the same time, or do you find it easy to separate them out?

ERM: I tend to work on one book until I get it as far as I can, then I swap to the other. I work quickly, but very intensely. When you write, you need a break from the text so you can distance yourself and spot mistakes, plot holes, inconsistencies etc. Swapping from one project to another enables this in a shorter space of time, so I find it really productive.

It is possible that I may end up in the situation very soon where I need to work on both novels in the same day. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen, but if it does, I guess I’ll just get on with it and look back and chuckle about it later.

SOH: Do you have a preference for writing (or reading) MG over YA, or do you enjoy books for both age groups equally? What do you find so irresistible about books for younger readers and teens?

ERM: I love writing and reading both age groups equally. I read widely and also love literary fiction, travel writing, short stories, poetry, and horror, but I think it’s a particularly exciting time for middle grade and young adult books. Right now, there are so many brave and talented authors writing incredible books – think Jon Walter, Louise O’Neill, Patrick Ness, Melvin Burgess, Malorie Blackman, Neil Gaiman, Roddy Doyle, Jandy Nelson, Claire Furniss… the list is endless! I think back to what we had available as teens, and it was either classics or horror (or both). There wasn’t this wealth of literature that focused on our age group, our dreams, and our problems. And the best bit is – you don’t need to be of middle grade or young adult age to read it!

SOH: What are your top five favourite books? (They don’t *have* to be YA or MG ;))

ERM: Five? Not 500? This is a tough one! OK, I’m going to be controversial and mix this up a bit … (You know that’s a cruel question, right?)

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman – Perfection from start to finish (I know it’s a trilogy but, ssh, no one noticed).

Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte – the powerful emotion and incredible use of landscape, the mastery of different narrators – I adore this book. It’s the book I’ve read most in my lifetime.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. If there’s a book I wish I’d written, this is it. Actually, anything by Neil Gaiman – from his kids’ books to his graphics novels to his short stories – is 100% incredible so I’m adding them all. I know that’s cheating (again) but I’ve decided it’s allowed.

My Name’s Not Friday by Jon Walter. Only published this year, this is an incredible tale with so much passion and emotion and heartache. You’ll never, ever, forget the protagonist Samuel!

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami – I love Murakami’s style, his sparse dialogue, his bizarre ideas. You have to completely suspend belief and every time you finish this book, it’s like you’re breathing again for the first time.

Let me know when I can add another 495 books to the list!

SOH: Clearly, you love to write, but do you find that any aspects of the writing process are painful or difficult? What was your favourite aspect of writing The Book of Learning, and your least favourite?

ERM: Waiting. Publishing involves so much waiting. From sending your work to an agent or publisher, to waiting to sign a contract, to waiting for editorial comments, to waiting to see an actual physical book, to waiting to read reviews and see what people think. I’m so impatient, so this has been the steepest learning curve of all!

When it comes to The Book of Learning, I guess my favourite bit of the process was that initial draft, when the story began to emerge – closely followed by the final draft, when I knew I’d nailed it. I always write my first drafts in a month; I call them draft zeros because I don’t edit a thing. Even if a character’s name changes, or the setting, I don’t go back and alter it – I immerse myself in the story completely and see what happens. It makes me feel like an explorer. If I try and plot or plan, it kills it for me. Of course, this means I have lots of drafts by the time I get to the finished product. And so, when you complete that final draft – it’s amazing. You draw a line under all that hard work.

As for my least favourite bit, that’s easy. The waiting.

The eyes have it! Elizabeth and her book, just hanging out. Photo: courtesy of E.R. Murray

The eyes have it! Elizabeth and her book, just hanging out.
Photo: courtesy of E.R. Murray

SOH: What advice would you give to any aspiring author – particularly a young author – wishing to follow in your footsteps?

ERM: Read widely and endlessly. Write, rewrite, and then rewrite some more. Go to writing workshops and festivals, soak up advice, and listen to other writers. Take on board any useful feedback you might get. Keep going and whatever you do – this is the most important bit – don’t give up.

SOH: If you were to be reincarnated yourself, how would you like to come back to life?

ERM: Can I come back as a writer again? I love it!

Thanks, Elizabeth, for a great interview and for writing such a stupendous book. The Book of Learning is available now through all good bookshops and/or direct from Mercier Press – check it out and let me know what you think! You can check out more about Elizabeth and her books on her website, and/or follow her on Twitter (she’s very nice!)

Interview with Kieran Fanning, author of ‘The Black Lotus’!

Irish author Kieran Fanning recently published his debut novel, The Black Lotus, and it’s a fantastic romp through time, space and reality. Characters have super-human abilities; ancient katana swords bear untold power; a terrible Empire is sweeping over the world and only our three teen heroes can stand in its way… In short, if you haven’t read it yet, get on it!

Image: courtesy Laura Smythe

Image: courtesy Laura Smythe

I am the last stop on Kieran’s blog tour (for details of his previous stops, see above), and accordingly he has graciously agreed to submit to my nefarious questioning (mwahaha!) The blog today is host to an interview with him about his book, his writing ‘ritual’, his advice to anyone seeking to follow in his authorial footsteps and which superpower he’d claim, if he had the chance. Read on to find out more!

Image: chickenhousebooks.com

Image: chickenhousebooks.com

SOH: The Black Lotus is a remarkably diverse book, taking in different settings, countries, languages, ethnicities and genders. Was diversity a particular interest of yours before you wrote the book, or did it emerge as you wrote?

KF: I didn’t intentionally set out to write a diverse book, but I wanted the Black Lotus to be an international organisation, and the story to span time periods and continents. I wanted it to be large in scale. So it had to be diverse. I mean, I couldn’t populate this group of global freedom fighters entirely with Irish people!

In school, we were always taught to ‘write what you know’ but I think the opposite is better advice – write what you don’t know. Because this makes you get up and research – it makes you pay attention. It’s like when you’re in a new place, you notice every leaf on every plant, but you don’t do this in your own back garden. Writing about places and people I was unfamiliar with was exciting.

SOH: When writing The Black Lotus, which came first: the characters or their superpowers?

KF: They kind of came together, though the superpowers came early on in the characters’ development. As the story changed, the characters changed a lot, too. But the characters’ superpowers and names are one of the few things that stayed the same

SOH: How did you come up with/design your characters’ special powers? Can you imagine them ‘swapping’ their abilities, or are they intrinsically tied to their personalities?

KF: Ghost was always going to be a petty criminal, so I needed an ability that would be useful to him. Invisibility was the obvious answer.

That scene where Cormac is chased by bullies was one of the first chapters I wrote. Before I knew it, he was trapped in a dead-end alley and he needed a superpower to get him out of his predicament. So that’s how his came about.

I knew my book would appeal to boys so I wasn’t worried about that. But I wanted female readers too. The one thing that most girls love is animals so I thought the ability to communicate with them would be ideal for Kate.

Her opening scenes were originally very different, featuring lions and a car which breaks down in an African safari park. You can guess what happens!

I was also very conscious of not making my superpowers too super, in a Marvel kind of way. I didn’t want characters that could fly, or turn into beasts. I wanted their abilities to be plausible.

Fade by Robert Cormier was probably the first story which made a superpower credible for me, and was possibly the inspiration for Ghost’s ability to turn invisible.

By now, the special abilities are so firmly linked with my characters I couldn’t possibly imagine them being swapped around.

SOH: If you could have Ghost’s, Kate’s or Cormac’s special power, which one would you choose?

KF: Ooooh, good question. When I was younger I probably would have liked Ghost’s ability, but I’m not sure I’d have much use for invisibility these days. Except when it comes to doing the washing up!

I’m not really an animal person so Kate’s superpower might be wasted on me. Though I think if I had it, I might become an animal person. I always wanted to know what goes on in a cat’s head – you know when they give you that ‘I’m better than you’ look!

So, by process of elimination, that leaves me with Cormac’s ability. How cool it would be to be able to run up the sides of buildings and sprint past speeding cars!

Image: courtesy Laura Smythe

Image: courtesy Laura Smythe

SOH: Where did your interest in Japan come from – clearly, you have a lot of knowledge of that country and its history and traditions – and how much research did you have to do into medieval Japan, samurai, ninjas and martial arts?

KF: We never went to the cinema as kids but my first big screen experience was at a Boy Scout meeting in an old town hall. Projected on a wall, Bruce Lee performed his acrobatic martial arts, and I became hooked. It later led me to take up karate which gave me my first taste of Japanese language and etiquette. Since then, I’ve been a Japanophile, with a fascination for all things oriental.

I did quite a bit of research, much of which was probably unnecessary as it never made it into the final book. You see, the original draft had many chapters set in Feudal Japan and were full of historical detail, but these got cut in the editing process. At the time, it saddened me, because some of them were my favourite chapters in the entire book, but looking back on it now, I see it was the right decision. My editor, Rachel, is a very clever lady.

I found the research difficult and resorted to reading fiction or watching movies set in medieval Japan. Not sure if this counts as research but it certainly gave me a feel for the period.

SOH: Do you have any writing rituals? Do you listen to music, or prefer silence? Do you have a ‘routine’? What’s your worst writing habit?

KF: Unfortunately, I don’t have a strict writing routine, relying instead on snatched moments between work and family. But being a teacher, I have long summer holidays, so July and August are very productive months. I don’t really have any rituals, except I like to write in silence, and reward myself with cups of tea. My worst writing habit is probably taking too many breaks. For me, writing is like building a house of cards. If I get a couple of cards to stand I feel I should stop in case I knock the whole damn thing down.

And Twitter. That’s another bad habit.

SOH: Does your work as a teacher impact on or inform your work as an author? Do you think there is any cause to worry that children aren’t reading ‘enough’, or as much as they used to? Do you use creative writing as a tool in the classroom, and do you think it has a role in education?

KF: I’m not sure my work as a teacher directly influences my writing but it definitely doesn’t do any harm. It keeps me tuned into what kids are reading – what they like and what they don’t. Being continually surrounded by your target audience allows me to hear how they speak and think, as well as witness the politics and social structures of the playground jungle. These observations are not always what you want to see as a teacher, but they’re good material for a writer!

I’ve never had a class in which everyone is a reader. The challenge will always be to get those reluctant kids to pick up books. A lot of kids still read avidly, but there are more ways for kids nowadays to spend their free time, and sometimes reading gets left out in the cold. TV, video games and the internet are huge distractions that compete with reading on a daily basis. But I think reading for pleasure will always survive. If kids get a taste for it when they’re young, they’ll always return to it at some stage, even if something else takes over for a while.

I think creative writing has a huge role in education, and it is a big part of what I do in the classroom. Every year, my pupils write and illustrate their own books which are then published in San Francisco and printed in Holland. Once they arrive back in the classroom they become the reading material for a term, allowing the pupils to read and talk about books written by their peers.

SOH: What are your top 5 favourite books? (They don’t *have* to be YA or MG… :))

KF: It’s hard to narrow it down to five, but I’ll try. It might be easier if I stick to YA and MG.

1. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
2. Chaos Walking by Patrick Ness
3. Holes by Louis Sachar
4. Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce
5. Any of these titles by Robert Cormier – Fade, The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, The Chocolate War, or I am the Cheese.

SOH: The Black Lotus took you several years to complete. What was your favourite part of the process, and your least favourite?

KF: My favourite parts were writing some of the scenes for the first time, and of course when I got the publication offer from Chicken House, as well as other highlights that followed – seeing the cover for the first time, selling the foreign rights and holding the physical book for the first time. I found those last three things enjoyable because they didn’t require blood, sweat and tears from me. They were like treats for all the work I’d put in previously.

My least favourite parts of the process were those early stages when I wondered if I was wasting my time. I also hated the waiting to hear from prospective agents and publishers. And of course, the rejections. They’re never nice.

SOH: How do you find the editing process – painful, or rewarding?

KF: Editing without an editor was painfully hard, and lonely, because you never knew if the changes you were making were for the better or worse.

Editing with an editor was much more reassuring, and ultimately rewarding.

SOH: If you had three pieces of advice for any aspiring author, particularly a young author, what would they be?

KF:

1. Read
2. Listen to good advice
3. Persist

SOH: What’s next from you, book-wise?

KF: I’m working on a new children’s novel which I think will be MG, but I’m not sure. It’s very early days so I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a dual narrative about two kids who find a mysterious object buried underground. Until I figure out what the rest of it’s about, I don’t want to say any more.

Thank you, Kieran, for your great answers to these fiendish questions, and for agreeing to spend some time hanging out here at Clockwatching… One thing’s for sure, I’ll be keeping a keen eye out for your next book, and recommending The Black Lotus to as many eager readers as possible. You can find out more about Kieran, his books and his upcoming releases on his website, and/or by following him on Twitter (but be aware he’s got ninja powers, so you’ll have to be careful if you’re sneaking up behind him!)
The Black Lotus is published by Chicken House.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox’

The first thing I’ll say about this book is: it made me laugh, people.

Image: goodreads.com Artist: Erwin Madrid (erwinmadrid.blogspot.ie)

Image: goodreads.com
Artist: Erwin Madrid (erwinmadrid.blogspot.ie)

It made me laugh because it’s a madcap, rollicking tale, but also because it reminded me so much of the zany weirdness of Flann O’Brien, whose novel At-Swim-Two-Birds is all over this work, and the linguistic artistry of Pat O’Shea, whose masterwork Hounds of the Morrigan has a similar feel to the dialect and dialogue on display here. In terms of the sheer unpredictability of the plot, the rich peppering of myth, mysticism and barely-controlled insanity which flows through it, and the pure belly-shaking fun of it, these two literary giants live on in Nigel Quinlan’s work. It’s so Irish, but it’s meta-Irish; Gaelic in a knowing, tongue-in-cheek way, at once honouring and taking the mick out of the traditions which, deep down, underpin it.

This isn’t to say you need a degree in English literature to appreciate it. Far from it. All you need to get on board with this book is a working sense of humour and an ability to leave your sensible shoes at the door.

Nigel Quinlan’s The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox (Orion, 2015) is the story of the Maloney family, who live in the Irish Midlands. They are siblings Owen, Neil and Liz, along with Mum and Dad, and they run a B&B to make ends meet. However, that isn’t their real role: Mr Maloney is the Weatherman, one of four very powerful beings who exist at the corners of the world and whose role it is to usher one Season in and another out at the appropriate times of year. If this job isn’t done, and done correctly, chaos and all manner of nastiness will ensue. The book is told through the alternating viewpoints of the two older children, Neil and Liz, both of whom are fun and interesting – but particularly Liz, who is a little firecracker armed with a bow and arrow, full of life and a fiery sense of the injustice of the world. I loved her, and I loved how her narrative arc ends up. The story begins just as Summer is supposed to become Autumn, and the family are preparing for the change of Season – but then, for some reason, it doesn’t happen. The expected chain of events doesn’t take place. Instead, they get a Tourist named Ed who turns up out of the blue looking for a room, and two cracked old hags begin to wander in the wood, and a Bog Beast turns up out of nowhere – and to top it all off, the neighbours begin to act very strangely indeed…

Ed is a tourist of magic who knows all about the legend of the Weatherman and is delighted to have found him. The inexplicable hags are straight out of Irish legend (via the aforementioned Flann and O’Shea), changing shape and appearance as the story goes on, and delivering some of the laugh-out-loud dialogue that this book is full of. I’ve read some reviews which compare them to the witch characters in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but as a lifelong fan of those books I have to admit I didn’t see any resemblance between Pratchett’s witches and these powerful gals at all. They’re far more like the triple-aspect goddess Morrigan in Pat O’Shea’s work, fast-paced and sometimes nonsensical dialogue and all. The Bog Beast (who becomes Neetch the cat, adopted wholesale by the youngest Maloney) is sometimes a terrifying creature and sometimes a tiny kitten, but always interesting to read about. The evil Mrs Fitzgerald, who (along with her brutish husband John-Joe and their odious son Hugh) is the baddie of the piece, is never less than compelling, and her connection to some of the other characters in the story is interesting. The Fitzgeralds live beside the Maloneys, though they’re hardly ‘neighbourly’, and the families have a long and twisty relationship which goes far beyond the usual issues about land ownership and boundary lines and who left grass clippings on whose lawn, and the sort. I really enjoyed reading about the families and how they are connected; these connections deepen as the book goes on.

Some of the book’s mythology – by which I mean its use of the weather and the changing Seasons as a motif – is a bit confusing or vaguely explained (particularly Mrs Maloney, who seems to be a figure of some power in her own right but who we never really learn about properly), and I wasn’t always on board with the need for the role of a Weatherman at all, or why such an arrangement between the powers of nature and humanity was ever arrived at. But this isn’t even important, really. The sheer fun of the story and the relentless pace of the goings-on is more than enough to keep any reader invested. I had so many moments when this book made me genuinely laugh, and I hope the humour would translate well whether you’re an Irish reader or not (though I do think an Irish reader might get a little more out of it than someone of another nationality), and I was particularly amused by the Shieldsmen, who were the traditional guardians of the Weatherman before being unfortunately exiled some years before. When we first meet them, their fast-paced dialogue and verbal eccentricities just carry the reader away, and despite the fact that they’re completely ‘out there’, they were among the most memorable characters for me.

So. Plotting isn’t this book’s strong point, but it more than makes up for that with superb characterisation, cracking dialogue and a great depiction of a flawed but realistic family, prepared to do anything it takes to support and protect one another. The humour and the pace of the action are the cherries on the cake. A definite recommendation for anyone willing to try something a bit different, and for any kid out there who likes Doctor Who, or who is looking for a story which will make them laugh – guaranteed!*

*Refer all claims in relation to this guarantee to Nigel Quinlan, c/o anyone but the proprietress of this blog!

So, Here’s the Thing.

Before I begin today’s rant blog post, I’d better preface it with a few things.

People are, of course, free to read whatever they want. I hate policing other people’s reading habits, and everyone should feel entirely free to read whatever it is they enjoy without threat of judgement, even if it’s something I’d find personally objectionable.

I don’t believe that only children should read children’s books, only teenagers read YA, and only adults read everything else. Of course. If I did, it would leave me immensely stuck, since children’s literature is my (literal) bread and butter.

People are fully entitled to their beliefs, be they religious or whatever. I’m a semi-practising Catholic, most of the time. Faith is important to me. It doesn’t run my life, and it doesn’t blinker me to reason, but it’s there at the core of who I am. I get it. Faith is a mainstay for a lot of people, and I’m not here to undermine that.

But.

Something I’ve seen people talking about on Twitter a lot lately is a sub-set, or type, of YA literature known as ‘Clean’. Clean teen reads seem to be big business, primarily in the US, but increasingly in the UK (and Commonwealth) too. And I have to admit that the whole concept of ‘clean reading’ sort of bothers me.

Not ‘sort of’, actually. It bothers me. Straight up.

Photo Credit: photos_martha via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: photos_martha via Compfight cc

Firstly, it bothers me because it makes judgement calls. It decides that certain books – ones which don’t include any sexual (and we’re talking anything from hand-holding up), and/or supernatural, and/or paranormal, and/or violent content – are ‘clean’. Which means, of course, that books which do include any or all of the ‘offending’ items are ‘unclean’. So, books about messy feelings and icky bodies and all the natural stuff that most people are doing during their teen years would all be considered off-limits. Unacceptable. Wrong.

Which sort of implies, doesn’t it, that the people who do these things are also off-limits, unacceptable, and wrong. Is this okay? I’m not sure it is.

I was a teenager during the 1990s, in Ireland, which is to say I may as well have been a teenager in the fifteenth century from the point of view of a modern youngster. No mobile technology, no computers, no instant this or high-speed that, and – despite the fact that I attended a mixed-gender school for most of my educational life – very little contact with boys. I was a lumpen, shy, ungainly and rather awkward adolescent, quite sweet in my own way, but certainly not adventurous.

Which is why I needed books.

I needed to read about heroines who were off doing the things I wanted to do. I needed to expose my brain to other ways of thinking, I needed to engage with media (including TV, which had a big part in forming my teenage – and, hence, my adult – mind) which challenged me and made me realise that not everyone was just like me, and that this was absolutely fine.

I had a place in the world, and I was happy with that. Stories existed about girls like me, too. But stories about girls who had sex with their boyfriends, drank and smoked and fell into and out of bad choices, who were growing up in complicated households, who were dealing with problems far beyond anything I had to think about, were so important. They wouldn’t have been considered ‘clean’ reads; I’m not sure such a concept existed at the time. But I’m glad I didn’t grow up in a household where my reading was policed. I’m glad I was allowed to read books which I chose for myself, and I’m glad I was trusted to decide whether or not something was too much for me to take at any particular time. I firmly believe that a child or young person will ‘self-censor’, by which I mean they’ll avoid something that they feel they’re not ready for, and that they’ll let things go over their head if they’re not able to process it. I know this is true because it’s how I was. It’s how I read, for years. I didn’t need to have my reading patrolled for me by an outside force who decided what was ‘appropriate’ and what wasn’t; I patrolled myself. I learned at my own pace. I was exposed to the world, other ways of thinking and feeling and being, and I am a stronger person for it.

If we only ever read books which reflect our own reality, how do we expect to be? We might as well read the same book, over and over, and expect it to give us a different story every time. Of course, I’m not advocating handing a six-year-old a copy of The Omen, or The Shining, or Fifty Shades of Grey. (They’d not be long about flinging it back at you, anyway – but that’s not the point). But children – after a certain age, at least – should be free to choose what they want to read. Parents do have a role, of course; they need to be there to advise and act as a safe sounding board if a child encounters something in a book which makes them scared, uncomfortable or unsure. They need to be there to explain, wisely and calmly, what the child has experienced in age-appropriate terms, and help them deal with any fallout. But they shouldn’t, in my opinion, be pressing for ‘clean’ books, ones which fit their narrow world-view, to be written and published. They shouldn’t be pressing for these books to be the only ones available to their children. They shouldn’t be clamouring for ‘unclean’ books to be removed from schools, and/or banned. Or is it just me?

A mother in the US recently took an author to task over a non-fiction book she wrote about Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose death from cancer has changed the world of science and medicine for untold millions of people. The book mentions the word ‘cervix’ and describes how Mrs Lacks discovered the tumour which would eventually kill her; the mother in question decided this was ‘pornographic’, and lobbied against the book. This, to me, is insane.

Women have cervixes. Sometimes, they get tumours. They have bodies which exist, and leak, and wobble, and give birth, and feed children, and which aren’t always perfect vessels. If you feel your child is too delicate – in high school – to understand concepts like this, then there’s a problem, all right. It’s not with the book, or your child. It’s not with biology.

Maybe there is a space for clean reads in the wide world of books. I’m prepared to admit that. But to think of a world where they are the only option? I’d rather not go there, thank you very much. And my choice is surely as valid as anyone’s.

 

How I Read

I saw this great post on the blog of writer Callum McLaughlin the other day, and thought: hmm. There’s a good idea! So, I decided to follow suit and answer the questions posed about how and what I read. I waffle on about how and what I write often enough on here!

Photo Credit: ~Brenda-Starr~ via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ~Brenda-Starr~ via Compfight cc

How do you find out about new books to read?

Social media, a lot of the time. I follow whackloads of writers on Twitter who are always talking about books (naturally enough), whether their own or those of people they know, and I’m usually hovering over their shoulder, taking notes. I also love walking into bookshops and simply seeing what grabs my eye – and/or allowing knowledgeable and helpful booksellers to guide me! – but in general I’m just open, at all times, to picking up bookish vibes. I’m constantly on the lookout for new suggestions, and I’m always sniffing out new possibilities. It sort of comes naturally.

How did you get into reading?

I literally don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t read. My parents tell me I was reading by the age of two – not books, as such, but I was able to pick up on words and put sounds together, which meant I was a huge hit at family parties and suchlike. (‘Dance, monkey! Dance!’) My parents read to me from my earliest days and our house was always filled with books; I don’t think the importance of making books available to children can be overstated. My brother and I are both big readers, even now, despite the fact that neither of our parents are actually all that into reading. They supported our literacy with a passion, but neither of them really read for pleasure – which is interesting!

How has your taste in books changed as you’ve grown older?

Not by a lot, truth be told! I am an omnivorous reader, and I have always been. I read books which were probably deemed ‘inappropriate’ at a young age (usually without my parents’ knowledge or involvement!), on a wide variety of topics, and I’ve never censored my own reading. I love all sorts of fiction with the exception of romance novels, which I never really warmed to (though I did try them, in my teens) and I’m making an active effort to read more non-fiction. That’s probably the only real change in recent years, actually – I’m trying to expand my repertoire by reading non-fiction, which has an entirely different feeling and power to fiction. I love children’s books, of course, but I always have.

How often do you buy books?

Not as often as I’d like. When I worked as a bookseller, of course, most of my pay packet went on ordering books for myself – this, I feel, is a common problem among booksellers! It’s so tempting, as a book addict, to simply chuck a few tomes into the order basket for yourself at the end of a particularly slow day, just so you feel justified in placing the order. Now that I don’t have that job any more, I find it’s harder to buy books. I don’t buy online, and I don’t have an e-reader (phooey!) and never will, so I’m dependent on my occasional travels to nearby towns to visit bookshops in the flesh. This doesn’t happen enough. (I’m not sure my husband would agree!)

My happy place... Photo Credit: un.2vue via Compfight cc

My happy place…
Photo Credit: un.2vue via Compfight cc

How did you get into Booktubing/book blogging?

I’m not a Booktuber (whatever that is!) but I blog about books and writing and reading because it’s what I love to do more than anything else in the world. I think about little else but books, plots, stories, characters, creating worlds and people and situations, and when I’m not writing my own, I’m reading the visions of others. I blog about books because, basically, I know very little about anything else!

How do you react when you don’t like the end of a book?

Violently, usually. I have been known to slap books shut and fling them on the ground if I don’t get on with how they end! I’m told I mutter when I’m reading if I don’t like what’s happening, whereas I’m deathly silent – and totally focused – if I love what’s going on in the book. I don’t ever ‘assassinate’ books in public, or post (really, truly) nasty things about them, no matter how much they annoy me, but my nearest and dearest hear all about exactly how disappointing the book was, and I’m lucky that they put up with me so readily! Books are important to me, you see. When they end badly, it makes me mad.

And I’m a bit like the big green guy with the purple pants when I get mad.

How often have you taken a sneaky look at the back page of a book to see if it’s a happy ending?

Goodness me. I never do this. The very idea! *looks about, shiftily* One thing I do do, however, is read a book’s acknowledgements first, which are sometimes printed at the back of the book. If they are, then occasionally my eye will stray to the last few lines, but I’ve normally forgotten them by the time I actually get to the end, so there’s no harm done. Right? Right.

Thanks to Callum for the great post, and the inspiration! If anyone wants to take up these questions on their own blog, do let me know. I’m nosy. I’d love to know what your reading habits are like. It’s all in the name of scientific research!