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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Q and A with William Sutton, author of Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square

Today I'm very happy to bring you some fascinating insights into the work of William Sutton, author of the fabulous Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square, a Victorian detective novel being published this week. If you're in the London area, do take a look at the open invitation to the book launch below *sigh*. Maybe next time... Anyway, here's what William had to say:

Why historical crime?

By mistake. I fell in love with the construction of subterranean London. The 1860s became my domain.

But in constructing my techno-thriller of the past, I discovered I could be blunter than I would be allowed to today. In a diseased society, if your friends went about cleansing it, how far would you support them?

Favourite fictional detectives?

I do like non-detectives detecting:

Oedipus the King, Sophocles
Porfyry Petrovich in Crime and Punishment (the original Columbo)
Inspector Cuff, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “I own that I made a mess of it. Not the first mess which has distinguished my professional career!”
Utterson, the lawyer, in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Joseph K in Kafka’s The Trial
Detective McDunn in Iain Banks’ Complicity
Diane Keaton in Manhattan Murder Mystery (first mystery: is there even a mystery?)
Woody Allen in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (see Oedipus above)

Your writing process? I'd like to know about planning - were all the pieces in place before writing?

Every book is different, every story is different, as I scrabble to find new ways to annotate and organise the waves of ideas.

I take notes, write scenes on backs of envelopes, wake up in the night. Notebooks, pads. Now I’m using Evernote and Scrivener, which let me check and add to notes anywhere.

I write by hand in fountain pen in A4 notebooks at a desk with no computer. I just love turning the page, numbering the pages, the cartridges running out, the whole process. I’ve now started typing up on to typewriter (my mother’s, a 1958 Eaton). I know it sounds mad. But my last book I spent so long faffing around with computer files, it’s actually quicker to rewrite decisively, revising with care but without deleting and cut/pasting, then to type up finally on to computer.

I’ve used speech to text software to help me type up. I’ve used text to speech software to listen back to (a robotic reading of) what I’ve just written.

My acting teacher told me, “On n’est jamais trop aidé.” You can’t be helped too much: ie whatever helps, do it.

Could you give us a crash course in writing crime fiction?

1. Go with your instinct on what you want to happen and why it matters.
2. Gather ways it could have happened.
3. Split them up. Wilkie Colllins: “Make ’em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.”

Thanks to William for this little bit of insight. Fountain pen, eh? If this has whetted your appetite to hear more from him, check out the details for Thursday's launch:

Friday, 26 July 2013

Review: Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square by William Sutton

Great start to a new Victorian detective series 

Strong setting, lots of clues and misdirects, intriguing characters: there's a lot to enjoy in this debut detective novel from William Sutton, out 1 August through the new Exhibit A imprint from Angry Robot Books.

Firstly the setting: Victorian London. This was rendered in glorious technicolour - or perhaps not so glorious, as it is the time of the Big Stink, after all! I felt that William Sutton really nailed the setting and transported me wholly to another time and place. I particularly appreciated the various nods to the contemporary period and recent past; I thought the author did a great job of using the past to comment on the present, although please don't think that's the main point of the book. It is, first and foremost, a complex historical police procedural focusing on Campbell Lawless, a Scotsman new to Scotland Yard.

In terms of plot and theme, this book is tightly wound. Encompassing terrorism, industrial strife, technology and the concept of progress, corruption and class issues, there is plenty to get caught up in here. Poor old Lawless has plenty to contend with to get in the way of solving the case, and it's safe to say that I did not see the twists coming. Although there were points where I needed to re-read to get developments clear in my head, that was probably more to do with my fogged brain than the writing.

The characters, as well as the setting, were a key strength of this book. William Sutton has a keen eye for detail and a great ear for dialogue and turns of phrase. There were so many distinctive and intriguing characters in this book! Lawless of course is great: an honest man who naively assumes that his job as a policeman is to find the truth (imagine!). Other highlights include Inspector Wardle, intimidating and worldly; the Worms, a band of street urchins who run errands and Ruth Villiers, a curious librarian with a keen sense of morality.

I really enjoyed the way the story was told, as well. With regular newspaper extracts, contextualising the story's events and showing how Lawless's successes (and failings) are reported in the press, these extracts really add to the novel. I'm a sucker for multiple voices and unusual narrative devices, so I felt these added an interesting counterpoint to the main storytelling.

Overall, I'd definitely recommend this as a solid police procedural, and I look forward to following Lawless's future adventures also.

William Sutton will be here at the Heathfire on Monday, answering some questions about his work, so do pop back then.

From the Publisher's Website:

“Before Holmes, there was Lawless… Before Lawless, the London streets weren’t safe to walk…”

London, 1859. Novice detective, Campbell Lawless, stumbles onto the trail of Berwick Skelton, an elusive revolutionary, threatening to bring the city to its knees with devilish acts of terror.

Thrust into a lethal, intoxicating world of sabotage and royal scandal – and aided by a gang of street urchins and a vivacious librarian – Lawless sets out to capture his underworld nemesis before he unleashes his final vengeance.

Lawless & The Devil of Euston Square is the first of a series of Victorian mysteries featuring London policeman, Campbell Lawless, on his rise through the ranks and initiation as a spy.

Murder. Vice. Pollution. Delays on the Tube. Some things never change…

Publishing 1st August 2013 by Exhibit A Books
More info at the author's (particularly brilliant) website
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing an e-arc via NetGalley

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Writing Life: In Praise of Timers

I don't think I would get anything done without a timer. When I'm struggling, when I'm in full rabbit-in-the-headlights, why-do-I-have-73-things-on-my-to-do-list mode, the timer is often the only way I can get started. I say to myself, I'll spend 15 minutes on this job, then the next, and so on. Sometimes, some of my to-do-list jobs can be done in 15 minutes (usually to my complete surprise), but often not. This doesn't matter. 15 minutes of that job done is 15 minutes more than I would have had done without the timer - not to mention 15 minutes less of "omg what am I going to do?" being quite good for my health.

Some days are '15 minute days'. The timer goes off all day, as I switch from task to task, chipping away at them. And if I'm being good, some of those 15 minute blocks can be 'me time'. It's amazing, but 15 minutes reading time can be a real break. This is something I learnt when exam marking. Very little else has the power to refresh in so short a time.

If this sounds helpful to you, and not like the confessions of a crazy person, you may like to check out the Flylady website, where I learnt the 15 minute rule. As a no-longer-Christian Brit reading her US Christian comments, there are times when I find her style a bit gushy and preachy, but at the same time, her advice is sound, and some of the sentimentality even rings true - for example, I think she's right that getting your house in order (quite literally - she's a housework life coach, first and foremost) is a way of loving yourself. I would not be as productive as I am today without having followed her system closely when I was first at home all day with a baby (argh! just realised that was almost fifteen years ago!) Anyway, startling realisations aside, I'll leave you with the suggestion to give the 15 minute thing a go if you're struggling to get going. As Flylady says, "you can stand anything for 15 minutes".

Monday, 22 July 2013

Review: Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

Brilliant second instalment in this glorious YA fantasy trilogy 

I adored Shadow and Bone last summer (initially published in the UK as The Gathering Dark), and couldn't wait for book 2 to see how Alina's adventures would continue. If you haven't read the first book, I wouldn't recommend reading on, as I can't be sure to avoid spoilers for it here.

(Did they go yet? Can I get on with it? Good.)

Siege and Storm jumps straight in with Alina and Mal on the run, helping us to recall all the reasons they should be together. But having reminded us of their connection, their love, the wicked Ms Bardugo throws all manner of stuff at them to complicate things. At different points in the novel I was frustrated with each of them - both being realistic characters (yes, despite the high fantasy world with tons of magic), they both acted badly (or at least ill-advisedly) at different points. It's a clear indicator that characterisation is a strength of the series that many of us as readers have shifted allegiances at different points and felt that characters 'should have' behaved differently, whilst also understanding why they did act as they did. When readers talk about characters as though they were real, you've cracked it as a writer.

As well as testing Mal and Alina and making it impossible for their relationship to progress naturally (to the point that we begin to question, at times, whether they can have a relationship beyond friendship), Leigh Bardugo has introduced some brilliant new characters to this instalment. Sturmhond the privateer (don't say pirate!) and his crew are a particular high point of this book. Sturmhond is unpredictable, unreliable and harbouring a secret (which I absolutely did not even begin to guess at) - but Alina and Mal may have no choice but to depend on him. I haven't yet mentioned the Darkling, but don't worry, he is not missing from the novel. Still dark, still alluring and still troubling Alina with his ability to say the most unsettling thing possible, he also has a new and dangerous power.

Siege and Storm continues in the truly epic vein of Shadow and Bone, ramping up the tension and the obstacles in Alina's way. As well as having to deal with her personal feelings, her uncertainties about what is right and her growing power, her life is now complicated by the fact that she has been elevated to the status of a saint in popular belief.

Overall, I would absolutely recommend this series. It's beautifully written to the point that you can luxuriate in the language; the plotting is first rate and the characterisation is powerful and skilled. Be warned, though - it's a long wait until next summer for book 3 and the ending of this novel may just leave you desperate. Leigh Bardugo is a superb writer, but she has no qualms about making her characters or her readers suffer!

From Goodreads' book description:

Darkness never dies.

Hunted across the True Sea, haunted by the lives she took on the Fold, Alina must try to make a life with Mal in an unfamiliar land. She finds starting new is not easy while keeping her identity as the Sun Summoner a secret. She can’t outrun her past or her destiny for long.

The Darkling has emerged from the Shadow Fold with a terrifying new power and a dangerous plan that will test the very boundaries of the natural world. With the help of a notorious privateer, Alina returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces gathering against Ravka. But as her power grows, Alina slips deeper into the Darkling’s game of forbidden magic, and farther away from Mal. Somehow, she will have to choose between her country, her power, and the love she always thought would guide her--or risk losing everything to the oncoming storm.

Siege and Storm is out now (published 6 June 2013) from Indigo
Find more info on Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publishers for providing me with a review copy

Friday, 19 July 2013

Review: Decoding Your Twenty-First Century Daughter by Helen Wright

Sound and sensible advice for parents of teen girls 

This book is subtitled "The Anxious Parent's Guide to Raising a Teenage Girl" and it certainly lives up to it well.

The author is an experienced head teacher, having successfully run independent girls' schools in the UK and in Australia, as well as a parent and her calm and reassuring style clearly springs from her wealth of relevant experience. Reading as someone who both parents a teenage girl (and a pre-teen) and teaches teens, I found plenty to agree with and some ideas I hadn't come across before or hadn't thought of in quite those terms.

The tone of the book is very no-nonsense and straightforward, which may on occasion have the effect of making things appear simpler than they in fact are, but in a calming way. The book can be quite conservative (small c), making assumptions, for example, about the extent of control that a parent would wish to have over a teen's life, but at the same time it contextualises those beliefs and supports a lot of its ideas with evidence of one kind or another. Its straightforward tone doesn't feel lecturing or rhetorical and it is definitely something that can be read and sifted through - it is not an 'all or nothing' book, where disagreeing with one claim necessitates abandoning the whole thing.

One area that I felt it excelled in was in presenting ideas about the brain development of teens and how this influences behaviour. I particularly appreciated this information because it was completely new to me, and was presented in a way that made clear what this means for parents trying to raise a daughter. I also liked the writer's insistence that it is natural for our daughters to pull away and want to establish strong friendships, and her advice on making ourselves available to our daughters regardless to ensure a good lifelong relationship. She was also supportive to the reader in recognising how we might feel about this and suggesting how to work with it. A further area that I thought was well-handled was a section on the sexualisation of teens in our society with some sound, up to date advice on helping girls negotiate this minefield and grow up with some self respect.

The book is well structured and clearly organised, presenting a series of different issues that we, as parents of teen daughters in this day and age, could think about or be concerned with. Each issue is presented in terms of how teenage girls are affected and what parents can do (and what we shouldn't or can't do and when to seek outside help, for example in cases of drug problems or eating disorders). Each chapter features a bullet point summary at the end, using the headings: What Parents Need to Know and What Parents Need to Do.

Overall, I found this meatier than a lot of self-help or parenting books (probably due to the use of science and data to support ideas), while being sufficiently gentle in tone to feel helpful and non-judgemental. It is clear that Helen Wright knows her stuff when it comes to teen girls, and she has a lot of helpful things to say. I would definitely recommend this title for anyone with a teen (or soon-to-be-teen) daughter.

From the Product Description:

DECODING YOUR 21ST CENTURY DAUGHTER: The Anxious Parent’s Guide to Raising a Teenage Girl is a no-nonsense, snappy, practical handbook for anyone who has to guide a young woman through the most turbulent years of her life. Distilling the wisdom acquired by Dr Helen Wright during nearly two decades as one of the UK’s leading teachers, it is both a source of encouragement and a fount of knowledge.

Key lessons become memorable messages, collected into checklists of what parents need to know and what parents need to do. An easy reference guide tackles area of concern for parents of teenage girls, including friendships; self-image; sexuality; drink and drugs; and external pressures.

“Parents will be lucky to have Helen Wright's ideas and wisdom on hand at this critical turning point in their teenage daughter’s development. Her approaches to coping with eating disorders and cyber-bullying are practical, sensible and lucid. This is an excellent book, full of ways to improve the everyday quality of life with teenage girls." Professor Tanya Byron, clinician, author and broadcaster

Published 1 May 2013 by emBooks (ebook only)
I am grateful to the publisher for allowing me a copy via Netgalley for an honest review

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Writing Funny Books for Children by M L Peel

Today at the Hearthfire, we are privileged to be visited by the fabulous M L Peel, author of The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair, out now from Walker Books and a great fun summer read. Here is a brilliant authorly meditation on laughter and humour in children's books.

The first time my daughter really laughed, she was around five months old. We were in the bathroom blowing bubbles. Pop. Pop. Pop. I burst them with my finger, and each time I burst one, she gave a little giggle. But then, I failed to blow one. Bubble-less, I was left fat cheeked, puffing into the air. My daughter stared in confusion, and then, from deep within her belly, there erupted a gurgling torrent of laughter.

When we had stopped laughing along with her, my husband and I stared at each other in amazement. Our baby could not yet feed herself or even sit up unaided, and yet she had just displayed a fully-fledged sense of humour: she had laughed at the incompetence of her bubble blowing mother.

I finished writing my first comic novel for children ‘The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair’ a year before my daughter was born, but it is only since observing her instinctive sense of humour, that I have really stopped to consider just how important laughter is to children’s emotional development, as important in its own way as food and water, touch and movement.

Laughter is bonding. It unites a family. Funny books make reading together a shared joyful experience. When reading together is a pleasure, parents will be inspired to do it more often, and children will concentrate for longer. Funny books foster a love of reading in general, a love that will last well into adulthood and be passed down into the next generation.

Even base bodily humour can be educational when it helps to keep children turning the pages. When I wrote my book The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair, I was aware that the concept of ‘phartling’ would be off putting for some adults. Many agents rejected the manuscript with a cursory glance at the synopsis. One agent wrote to tell me that “whilst the odd whizz popper may be amusing, a whole book about them will not be.” One posh London primary school cancelled my school visit over fears that parents would feel they had put “unsuitable material into the hands of children.” (My favourite rejection letter ever…)

In one sense, the agent who wrote to tell me that a “whole book about whizzpoppers” would not be amusing was right. But had she read the book, I hope she would have discovered that whilst it’s full of whizzpoppers it’s not really about them. Whizz-poppers are the pretext that let me talk about our society’s obsession with instant fame, without, I hope, ever sounding worthy or pompous. The farcical nature of ‘phartling’ allows me to discuss (amongst many other things…) both Mozart’s work for opera and stranger-danger, two topics which, in their different ways, would indeed be ‘unsuitable material for children’ if presented in a more serious context. When I talk to children on school visits, after the initial sniggers, it is rarely the ‘phartling’ they dwell on: instead they enthuse to me about the parrot disguised as an owl; or the Duke of Phartesia’s moustache done up in curlers; or Agent Frogmarch shouting at the spoilt celebrity parents….

As well as being bonding, laughter is sometimes punitive. Anyone who has been a child knows, laughter can be cruel as well as joyful. One thing I have been mindful of when writing is to avoid poking fun at ‘easy targets’. I have tried to make the rich and the powerful the butt of my jokes (excuse the pun, I just can’t help it…), rather than the weak or vulnerable.

Since my daughter has been born, I have become even more conscious of the way in which girls and female characters are portrayed in children’s fiction. My characters are deliberately larger than life and so can sometimes sail close to stereotypes, but I have tried to make sure that I tease men, women and children equally. A few friends have asked if I could put their children into a book, or name a character after them, but since my characters are rarely one hundred percent pleasant, this is a request I have had to decline!

Above all, I try to remember the weird and wonderful things that made me laugh as a child, and to use those memories as my inspiration, (so for instance, the origami loo paper is a standing joke in my family). I also try to make myself laugh as an adult and to include a few jokes especially for the parents reading aloud to their children. Sometimes, I have to sit down to write when I am not feeling particularly funny, but if I haven’t cheered up by the end of my writing session, I know I’ll probably end up going back and deleting most of what I’ve written later. If I’m not laughing, why should anybody else be…

What a fascinating post! Thank you so much. 

If this has whetted your appetite for a funny summer read, The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair is available now.

Monday, 15 July 2013

My Bookish Summer: What's coming up

Welcome back! Did you miss me? I had a much-needed (and exceptionally well-timed for the weather) break in Cornwall with the family.

I thought I'd dive right in and whet your appetite for a few of the fabulous titles that I'm planning to feature over the next few weeks. If none of these tickle your fancy, you're clearly beyond help :)

Kids' titles

The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair by M L Peel sounds delightfully silly: phartlehorns, indeed! M L Peel will in fact be visiting the Hearthfire soon, so do watch this space.

The next Mariella Mystery (Cupcake Conundrum) by Kate Pankhurst is also worth waiting for. Expect more quirky case-busting from the junior sleuth and her gang.

Another brilliant kids' series with new titles is Sara Grant's Magic Trix, featuring a young trainee witch hoping one day to become a fairy godmother. I have two lovely titles from this series to share with you soon: Birthday Wishes and Museum Mayhem.

YA Fantasy

There are some big titles in YA fantasy out now and coming soon. I'm looking forward to sharing some of these with you.

Having loved both Shadow and Bone (originally published as The Gathering Dark) by Leigh Bardugo and Sarah J Maas' Throne of Glass last summer, I was desperately keen to get my hands on the sequels: Siege and Storm and Crown of Midnight, respectively. For powerful young women, romantic dilemmas and epic fantasy, look no further than these two great US titles.

Another sequel that made me cheer in anticipation is Sean Cummings' Student Bodies, follow up to his amazing Poltergeeks. I can't wait to see what wisecracking teen witch Julie gets up to next in her quest.

But it's not just sequels. I'm also thrilled to be able to introduce you to Zoe Marriott's new urban fantasy series (something of a departure for her). The Night Itself, book one in the Name of the Blade trilogy is just out, using Japanese legend in a contemporary urban setting. How cool does that sound?

YA Thriller/chiller

Did you read Soul Beach? And Soul Fire? Well, Kate Harrison's third and final instalment - Soul Storm - is due soon and I can't wait to see whodunnit! I think I've suspected just about everyone at some point, so at least I'll be right no matter what the answer is...

Another big title I've been waiting for is James Dawson's second novel, Cruel Summer. I loved his Hollow Pike and although this seems like quite a different kind of book, he's more than convinced me that he's worth reading. With mystery, murder and plenty of suspicion to go around, this sounds like a great read.

Adult Titles

Two debut novels here, in quite different genres.

Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square by William Sutton introduces a Victorian policeman and tests him with all manner of political machinations and intrigue. Terrorism, industrial sabotage, cheeky young urchins and a scotsman in Scotland Yard - doesn't this sound great?

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker seems to be a kind of literary fantasy. My eye was caught when it was compared with Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and I'm also intrigued to see how it combines different traditions to bring together a golem and a djinn.
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