Monday, 26 June 2017

Inappropriate Content? - Eloise Williams

For this month’s blog piece, I’ve been chatting with the wonderful Tamsin Rosewell of Kenilworth Books.

I’ve been overwhelmed by her support for Gaslight - my latest book - and truly delighted by the window display she created for it. As a result of a conversation about Gaslight, and books in general, she has given me this fascinating account of her thoughts on age recommendations and how books are categorised.

Inappropriate Content?
Do we have a section in the shop labelled ‘Great Books for 8 Year-Olds’? No. It would make our lives easier (if far less interesting) if we could answer confidently the regularly asked question: ‘is this book ok for an 8 year old?’.  Age recommendations on books are as unhelpful as they are helpful. They can put adults off reading – yes, I’ve had a couple of adults chat to me happily about Gaslight having read my review, they get all excited ..and then say ‘oh, no I don’t want to read a children’s book.’ They can also put children off reading: ‘I think my daughter would love this, but it says 8+ and she’s 14 – she’ll think it is a bit childish.’ And they can worry parents: ‘My son is a great reader but he’s only 7 – I think a book for a 12 year old might be a bit grown up for him!’.

I was 21 years old when Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights was first published, and I was asked to read and review it. The trilogy questions everything from the existence and benevolence of a God, to the nature of love, friendship, death and sexuality. These books explore the greatest questions of human existence. Northern Lights was handed to me as a book for older children. The best-selling book on the adult’s list then was ‘Does My Bum Look Big in This?’ I remember thinking at the time that if the children are being invited to think about the great questions of philosophy and the adults are wondering what their bums look like, I’d rather read the books being written for kids. And, at 43, I still generally read the books labelled as for children and young adults. I loved Gaslight, and I’d recommend it for any adult who loves a great story that is well-researched and well-written.


Eloise writes books, and I sell them. We stand at opposite ends of a bridge between two worlds. Beneath our bridge plummets a mysterious and terrifying gorge called ‘publishing’. At some point down below us, in the darkness, her book was given an age recommendation, and by the time it made its way to me, it was labelled as ‘suitable for ages 8+’.  When I was a kid I can't remember any book having an age recommendation - my 1978 copy of Red Shift by Alan Garner has no indication of an age on the cover. There is nothing to indicate the sex scenes in the book - even when other books by Garner are classics of children’s fiction. And all those Judy Bloom books in the 1980s about periods and boys and sex, I’ve no recollection of an age written on them. It recommended by hushed discussion from 12-year-old to 12-year-old.

When someone comes in to the bookshop and asks for ideas for a book for a daughter or niece, the question I have learned to ask is ‘what sort of girl is she?’ And the answer is as varied as the books that are then chosen. I’ve met 12 year olds who would struggle to read many of the books with 8+ written on the back; and I know 7 year olds who already have a passion for Dickens. My 12-year-old niece was terrified by Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse (which I think is the sweetest, funniest little book in the world) and yet I meet 8 year olds who will read Skulduggery happily. Skulduggery makes an interesting study: the first four novels are fine for the 9+ recommendation they have (just), but when the fifth one came out my colleague and I agreed that, if that were a film, it would be rated 18 for the sheer level of horror in it – it is far more horrific than, for example, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. So why does it still get classed as a children’s book?  But then again, many kids are fine with that.


With so much depending on the child, why do we put age recommendations on books? Are we assuming that there is certain content that is not appropriate for a 7-year-old but that is fine for an 8-year-old? I’m not convinced that this is about parental control – after all there are much more violent and sexualised scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy (rated 12a) than in most of the adult thrillers on our bookshelves. If is isn’t that, then are we assuming that the language or intellectual skills of a 12-year-old are markedly different from those of an adult? Many of the trend-driven popular books on our adult fiction shelves are far lower in intellectual content, erudite language and complex structure than those on our Children’s or YA shelves . I've just been reading (and I adored!!) Chris Priestley's Tales of Terror; the first in the series weaves in and out of the Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories written by MR James. I know MR James' work inside out as I've been reading it since I was 11, and Chris Priestley’s language is no less sophisticated, no easier, no less complex than James' of the turn of the century. Children study 19th century literature at school from the age of 11 – so we can’t fairly accuse them of having less sophisticated language skills than many adults. Children certainly have different language skills from adults though; I’ve noticed that as a collective, children are more comfortable reading colloquial language or dialect than adults.


I’m always curious to know if an author thinks that he or she is ‘a children’s writer’ or just a writer. Authors tell me different things; some say that, as far as they are concerned they are writing a book, the discussion about an age recommendation come later. Others are very sure they are writing a children's book from the outset. Many have told me that they write what they want and then the publisher or editor tells them if it is all suitable for an age range.


Often, the only thing that seems to separate a children’s novel from an adult’s novel is the age of the protagonists involved. One writer told me that he’d lowered the age of the protagonists in his books, from his original intended plan, to fit in with the idea that these were going to be children’s books. Are we saying that adults don’t want to read books in which the protagonists are younger than them? If this is the case then why do we stop when we get to YA age? I remember my mother insisting that Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ was ‘a woman’s book’ and that no 16-year-old girl could possibly hope really to understand it. Many of the adult’s book groups with which we work at the bookshop are very clear that they are not in the least interested in anything with sexual content, that they don’t want slushy love stories and above all they cannot abide violence and bad language in a novel. If only I could encourage them to choose a wonderful book called Gaslight, labelled as for 8+!

We should discuss too who buys the books labelled as ‘YA fiction’; even though its quantity and indeed its quality is very high, it is very far from being the best-selling section of the shop. And yet, on those shelves are some of the most important novels of our times – I’d count Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman and Phoenix by SF Said as two of the most important and defining books of our age. Have we really decided that these books are for young people – or are we signalling something different when we label a book as ‘YA’. I think we are indicating that these books are the ones in which anything and everything is discussed openly. These books are challenging and exciting. YA authors are fearless; there is nowhere to which they are not prepared to go. But labelling books as ‘YA’ for some reason terrifies parents and grandparents who are buying a book for a teenager – we’ve had older adults look at the books in the YA section and say ‘Oh, no I think I’d like to buy her a nice book.’ We don’t have a section for ‘nice books’. The majority of YA fiction sold in our shop is to men and women who are 25+. Is just my small corner of England in which Young Adults weren’t the main readers of YA fiction? Out of curiosity I asked a director of the Booksellers Association about the profile of people who were buying YA fiction. He sighed a little and then said: ‘that is a very great mystery indeed.’  An accurate answer, but not a very helpful one.

When new stock arrives, we manage to put it all on to the shelves without even looking for an age recommendation. I assume therefore, that having age recommendations on books serves something closer to an administrative purpose. A neat categorising of writing. A plan for publicity. A price point. A cover design. A responsible web-listing. I can’t really see how such specific age recommendations help anyone. They don’t really help booksellers; and if they don’t help me sell the books then they don’t help the authors either. They don’t help parents, and they don’t help children. So who do they help?

Tamsin Rosewell is an historian, broadcaster and bookseller; she has worked for Independent Bookshop, Kenilworth Books, in Warwickshire, for nearly ten years. The bookshop itself has existed for 50 years. When she is not in the bookshop she makes radio arts, history and music documentaries
Visit Kenilworth Books at
Follow Tamsin on Twitter @AutumnRosewell and @KenilworthBook


Sunday, 25 June 2017

Playing with postcards - by Sue Purkiss

A couple of weeks ago, I read a blog somewhere - maybe even on here - about a new challenge a writer had set herself: she had decided to write a story on a postcard every day for a month. (At least, I think that was it; something along those lines, anyway.) Alongside this, for some time now I've been signed up to a delightful site called Postcards from Pembrokeshire. If you haven't seen this, do take a look. Artist Guy Manning (who I think is the partner of Eloise Williams, of this parish) has undertaken to do a postcard sized painting every day for a year of Pembrokeshire, where he lives. If you subscribe, you receive an email every day with his latest offering, and if you want, you can buy one. They're very lovely, especially, to my mind, the ones of the sea.

Now. I'm going to tell you a secret, which you must keep very, very quiet. All right? Not a word to a soul - not a word. It's this. Some writers - probably most writers - absolutely FIZZ with ideas. The only problem such writers have is deciding which idea to focus on. No sooner have they started one book than they're itching to start the next, and then the one after that.

But sadly, I'm not like that. When I have an idea, it sort of implants itself. It won't leave me alone. If I try to tell the story one way and it doesn't work, I'll prowl around like a bear with a sore head and eventually I'll try it another way. Sometimes I long to root it out and chuck it away, but no, there it is. I'm stuck with it. There's no other idea waiting to sprout - there's just the one.

My card box, with the cards I've 'done' so far.

Well, about a week ago I was, yet again, at the prowling-around-and-growling stage - when several things collided in the most useful way. First, along came the postcards - Guy's lovely pictures, and the idea of writing a story on a postcard. Next came flash fiction. I've never got into this before, but I had just been having a go at it with the writing class I teach. Next is my habit of buying a few postcards when I go somewhere. Sometimes they're landscapes, sometimes, from galleries and museums, they're reproductions of pictures or artefacts. I've amassed quite a lot.

And suddenly there it was - a brilliant way to challenge myself and get some ideas kick-started. Every day, I would aim to write something on the back of a postcard, inspired by the picture on the front. It might be a story, it might be a beginning, it might be a scene from the middle of a longer story - it might not even be a story at all!

And I'm absolutely loving it! Each postcard takes me somewhere utterly different. I've already learnt a lot more about shaping a story, and about knowing where to start it. Each day, I get to meet completely new characters - it's extraordinarily energising! I'm having ideas - lots of them! And it doesn't take very long, so there's still plenty of time to return to the work in progress. It's also rather nice to sit down at my desk and NOT open up my computer: I'm not distracted by Facebook and other goodies, and I'm not encumbered by the weight of my own expectations concerning ongoing work.

Here's one of them - I've typed it out below so that you can actually read it. I get about 250 words onto the back of each card. I allow myself to make one or two notes before I start, and if necessary to do a tiny bit of research, but not to let myself get bogged down.

It's such fun. You can write in a way you normally wouldn't; you can be a tad melodramatic, for instance. It's playing, it's allowed! What do you think?

This postcard came from a museum in Arromanches. It's a still from a film called Le Prix de la Liberte, and it shows a sky full of parachutes - the D-Day landings.

I imagined a woman, a collaborator. I've seen letters from such people, in Resistance museums: people who informed on their neighbours...

Simone Bachelot finished writing the letter and put it in an envelope. She didn't sign it, of course. It was anonymous, like all the others. So much for that silly girl who lived next door, with her noisy children and her constant men friends. She smiled to herself, and took a sip of mint tea. Oh, how she longed for some good coffee! This war had taken away so much.

But it had given a good deal, too. The chance to avenge herself on all those old classmates who had refused to be her friend, the young women who laughed at her shabby clothes, the baker who saved his best bread for others... oh yes, they'd be sorry! Were already, some of them, rotting in Gestapo cells no doubt - and serve them right.

She put on her coat ready to go to the post box. But when she opened the door, she saw an extraordinary sight. The sky was full of black shapes like mushrooms - parachutes! And how had she not heard that relentless drone - masses of Allied planes, like flocks of metal crows?

"No!" she whispered, as others danced and cheered in the street. "No! This wasn't meant to happen!"

An iron hand squeezed her cold heart. As she crumpled to the floor, her young neighbour rushed up to help. "Madame? Madame...?"

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Eight unintended consequences of becoming a writer by Tracy Alexander

1 I cannot scribble a note.
I cannot scribble a note anymore. I have to craft it. Whether it’s to the window cleaner, the DHL delivery man or a neighbour. The bliss of rattling off a badly worded but nonetheless effective piece of communication is lost to me. I can still write badly worded pieces of communication with aplomb, but I cannot make myself part with them without an edit. Or two.

2 Writing a heartfelt card has become debilitating.
I feel as though I am expected to be able to express difficult emotions with grace and clarity. I cannot do this. I write all tricky passages for the interiors of cards several times in rough before I do the real thing. Even then, when the card is sealed in its paper envelope, I worry that I have not done well enough. As a sixteen-year old I sent my aunt a card when her mother died. She read it aloud at the funeral. It was unselfconscious and sincere. Where has that gone?

3 The expectation is that I know and love all ‘classics’.
I do not know the plots of Shakespeare’s plays or Jane Austen’s novels. I studied maths, physics and chemistry and then a science degree. Reading has always been a massive part of my life but my formative years were spent with The Women’s Press, not Penguin. I like Jack Reacher, not Mr Darcy. And Tom Ripley, not Shylock. My heroine is Myra from The Women’s Room, not Catherine Earnshaw (although Kate Bush taught me about her). People talk to me as though I am learned in the field of literature. I have been known to play along. Excruciating.

4 a More people talk to me at parties.
I used to work in financial services. People tried to get away. But being a writer is a job people aspire to and that makes me both exactly the same person I was before and much more interesting than I was before.

4 b People I talk to at parties expect to have heard of me.
Success is a loaded term. I don’t feel unsuccessful, but when no one you meet has ever read one of your books it’s hard to keep the faith. Having said that, most partygoers only know the name of a handful of children’s authors so I won’t care. And I'm not writing for them anyway.

5 There is no weekend.
No one in my house has a Monday to Friday job with regular hours. No one goes to school anymore. For many people, ‘looking forward to the weekend’ signifies a change from the weekday routine. We have no routine. Whilst this has many upsides, it means that I have a constant whisper urging me into the study. (I realise I could declare my own ‘weekend’ but discipline isn’t a word I enjoy.)

6 Everything is a story.
I am guilty of imagining everyone’s lives in print. It has developed into a kind of filter where real people become characters for me to manipulate. This doesn’t seem helpful. (Or in fact something to admit.)

7 I am asked to write all sorts.
Friends’ websites, invitations to the street party, performance poetry for celebrations, letters to the council, pithy conclusions from research findings for my clever friend whose English is charming but not conventional (it's her second language.) I am not always equipped for these tasks but they keep coming.

8 I have a (small) network of fellow writers.
I’ve been writing for a dozen years and have crossed paths with many interesting folk. One of the joys of the friendships I’ve made is that they are separate from the rest of my life, not grounded in family, school or my previous work. It’s a bonus to develop a new multi-flavoured faction of great friends in your forties and beyond.  
I am Bristol based. When my first short story was aired on BBC Radio 4 Helen Dunmore sent a note via a mutual friend asking whether I would like to meet up. For ten years we drank coffee at the Boston Tea Party near her office and what started as benevolence became  a lovely friendship. In the many obituaries of Helen her generosity to other writers has been mentioned. I think perhaps more writers should follow her lead.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Banana Splits, Chanting Stones and Flashing Blades by Steve Gladwin

And –following on from my tribute to Jim Henson's 'The Storyteller' in my last blog – here are a few more that were prepared a little earlier than that.
Yes I decided to revisit a few more classics in these next two blogs. In this first part I will outline a week of classic children’s TV of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, (my era!) and after that I will go away and revisit them all, making the most of the ones I possess and the wonder of youtube.

But before we start, here are a few questions for those with sharp memories.

*What sort of animal was Bingo in 'The Banana Splits'?
*What sort of dog was Belle in the series 'Belle and Sebastian'?
*What broadcasting disaster befell the English dubbed version of the classic French series, 'The Flashing Blade'?
*In the series 'Freewheelers' what was the name of the recurring character played by Ronald Leigh Hunt.
*What is still known as ‘the scariest programme ever made for children?

By the end of this blog you should have the answers to all of these, unless you happen to be a 60-s and 70-s TV nerd, in which case you’ll be able to think of a whole lot more. In the meantime belt yourself in and set the controls for a week of classic children’s TV from Monday right through until Saturday. And yes you will notice that there are only five, rather than six programmes and I’ll explain why later on. So without more ado.

Monday – ‘Freewheelers’

I have no idea whether Southern TV’s children’s TV series ‘Freewheelers’ was actually shown on a Monday, but it's always had a Monday feeling in my memory.

Believe it or not, there were eight series of 'Freewheelers' made and a total of 104 episodes. Within this list, it was by far the longest running, and I remember my sister and I being riveted to it week after week. Director of episodes throughout Series1-8, Chris McMaster conceived it as an ‘Avengers’ or ‘Department S’ for teenagers, being astute enough to know how popular these ‘grown-up’ programmes were with that demographic.
Probably the most familiar thing about the programme is the theme tune ‘Teenage Carnival’ which you can hear on youtube and will immediately capture long lost memories of evil machinations, threats of world domination and assorted skullduggery.

Freewheelers Credits

Initially three teens aid British Secret Agent Colonel Buchan, (played by Ronald Leigh-Hunt) to foil the plot of ex-Nazi Karl Von Gelb, (played by Geoffrey Toone) to ‘reverse the verdict of the last war.’ Interestingly enough, when the series was later sold to West Germany, the character of Von Gelb was de-nazified – in the sense that he was made not to have been a Nazi after all. He was the first of the villains in 'Freewheelers', to be followed later by familiar heavy Jerome Willis and Kevin Stoney. And talking of heavies, the most familiar to both 'Freewheelers' and Hammer horror fans, was the great Michael Ripper in the role of Burke. Over the years the children included Tom Owen, (son of Bill), Christopher Chittell who as Eric Pollard in Emmerdale, holds the record for longest running character, and former Doctor Who companion Wendy Padbury.

My most enduring memory of 'Freewheelers' however was how it must have been almost solely responsible for introducing me to the music of Wagner. I can see Von Gelb now as he listens to the overture to Tannhauser on his headphones in his submarine. It's your fault Karl!

'Belle and Sebastian'

On Tuesday we have the heart-warming story set in the French Alps, (actually filmed in the village of Belvedere in Alps Maritime) of a young boy and his beloved Pyrenean Mountain Dog Belle. He of course is Sebastian. Made in black and white, it first appeared between October 1967 and January 1968 on BBC One and was based on the novel of the same name by the actor and writer Cecile Aubry, whose real life French/Moroccan son Mehdi El Giaou, played the name part to such winning and moving effect, and with a truly memorable pout.

The wonderful Mehdi as Sebastian

Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, it quickly became staple summer holiday viewing, but it was originally broadcast in the prime-time slot following Blue Peter. Due mainly to its powerful themes of love and its endurance, script and acting, 'Belle and Sebastian' is rightly regarded as a classic of children’s TV.

There were two sequels but only one of them, Belle, Sebastian and the Horses, was shown on British TV in 1968. Most memorably of all perhaps is the haunting final song, ‘Oiseau’, sung by little Mehdi himself.

I can’t imagine 'Belle and Sebastian' ever working in anything other than black and white. There’s something about it that perfectly suits the harshness and grandeur of the alpine scenery and the poverty of many of the characters. 13 episodes of 26 minutes were made and you can get a lovely copy on DVD with the choice of the original French or a dubbed version with a French accent which – as someone says on Amazon – is oddly effective.
In 2014 a feature length film of Belle and Sebastian was made, based on the original characters and again featuring a boy and his Pyrenean Mountain Dog, which was very well received, but if you want to catch moody black and white and Mehdi’s wonderfully natural performance, go for the ‘Oiseau’ original.
Wednesday is ‘Flashing Blade day!

The Chevalier and his faithful Guillot

Well obviously I can’t remember whether Wednesday ever was 'The Flashing Blade' day, but what I do remember is that FB, a dubbed and re-edited version of a French adventure series called Le Chevalier Tempete ran on children’s TV throughout the 60’s and 70’s and, despite its often suspect dubbing and the fact that five seventy five minute films in French had been adapted into twelve twenty two minute episodes for its BBC transmission, it quite stole my youthful adventurous heart and that of my sister.

Originally released in 1967 it follows the adventures of the dashing Chevalier De Recci, (Robert Echeverry) and his faithful sidekick Guillot, (Jaques Baluton) against the background of the real-life siege of Casale, part of the ‘War of the Mantuan Succession’ between 1628-31. Our two heroes have to break through enemy lines under the very noses of their Spanish enemies to take a message which will rescue the beleaguered French garrison. All this while avoiding capture, enemy spies and pursuing troops.

Such a description of course hardly covers why we loved it and continue to love it. Just watching the first few minutes set against the continuing bombardment of Casale, take you – even with our modern ears which can pick out the inferior dubbing – right back there.

Then there’s the music and I don’t mean ‘You’ve got to fight for what you want, for all that you believe’, (actually titled 'Fight' which – annoyingly catchy as it is – was of course not part of the French original). What I do mean is the section of the first movement of Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ which was used as the background to any exciting bit – and there were a lot of those! There was something about that acceleration of strings which just got you so excited you could hardly speak and that was even before our hero the brave Chevalier and his nemesis, (the wonderfully smooth and slimy Mario Pilar as Don Alonso) set their blades flashing.

The series however is infamous for the way it ended – or rather didn’t. On the last two episodes of the original transmission, vision was completely lost Fans were of course heartbroken and wrote to 'Ask Aspel' in their droves. I don’t actually remember this tragedy, and nor do I remember some of the missing footage being shown on 'Ask Aspel' sometime later.

There is however something else decidedly odd about the series in its original form, and I will return to that in the second part. In the meantime -

'As long as we have done our best,
And no-one can do more.
And life and love and happiness,
Are well worth fighting for.



In the meantime it’s time for us to call in very briefly at a series which has been called ‘the scariest programme ever made for children.’ Unlike other friends of mine, I haven’t seen ‘Children of the Stones’ since it was first broadcast by HTV in January/February of 1967. I was seventeen at the time and remember being pretty knocked out by what seemed to me more than just another piece of children’s TV. As part of this investigation I will be watching it on youtube, where some kind soul has kindly placed the entire series. Produced by Peter Graham-Scott it is regarded as a piece of landmark children’s TV. It was written by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray and deals in seven episodes of the arrival in the village of Milbry (Avebury) by the astrophysicist Adam Brake and his son, where they find a decidedly odd community.

Of the two things I remember about it, one was how the villagers who were under the ‘influence’ of the stones would say ‘happy day’ to people with annoying frequency. Secondly it was the eerie music by composer Sidney Sayer, with the chants arranged and performed by the Ambrosian Singers.


And last but by no means least – altogether now.

Tra-la-la, la,la,la,laah.

Yes folks what would Children’s TV be without a Saturday morning classic and in my day they didn’t come much more classic than 'The Banana Splits' show.

OK let’s not pretend that the four blokes in suits – Fleegle, ( the beagle), Bingo the gorilla, Drooper the lion and Snorky the elephant, were the main attractions here. Their antics might have been amusing enough as they pratted around in various theme parks and pretended to be a band that could play in the same manufactured way as Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith of ‘The Monkeys’, (Drooper’s Deep South drawl was apparently based on the latter’s). The split's animal hosts also had certain characteristics such as a deliberate Daffy Duck type lisp for their leader Fleegle and Snorky the elephant talking only in odd honks. The series was broadcast between September 7th 1968- September 5th !970 and produced by Hanna Barbera.

The er -- band!

But no, it wasn’t the framework of fun and furry band frolic which made us love the show! It was the fact that it was interspersed with live action and animation including Danger Island, The Three Musketeers and most definitely ‘just get those blokes in suits and go to The Arabian Knights'. This alone is a subject to return to next time and I better stop there as dear reader I have rambled through the classics for long enough. So there only remain two things to complete. First – and if you haven’t yet spotted them – here are the answers to our quiz.
*Bingo was of course a gorilla with a cap and shades.
*Belle was a Pyrenean Mountain Dog
*The last two episodes of ‘The Flashing Blade’ completely lost the picture.
*The character Ronald Leigh-Hunt played in ‘Freewheelers’ was Colonel Buchan.
*Children of the Stones’ is regarded as the scariest children’s TV programme ever made.

Secondly you may have noticed there was no entry for Thursday. Well not being over fond of Thursdays at the moment, I’ve left it blank because – let’s face it – there’s bound to be some classic I’ve missed and I rely on you to tell me which, or even go further and compile your own list. In Part Two of ‘Banana Splits, Stones and Flashing Blades’ I will report further on watching most of them again. Meanwhile thanks for listening and do tune in at the same time next month.

NB You can find the full version of Children of the Stones and full episodes of the Banana Splits as well as the Arabian Knights on youtube, where you will also find the theme music to Freewheelers and sing along. Later series of Freewheelers, and complete versions of Belle and Sebastian and The Flashing Blade including the end, (but in its french version) are available on Amazon. Enjoy!

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'

Thursday, 22 June 2017

New Voices, by Dan Metcalf

I've been thinking a lot about audiobooks nowadays since talking to a friend of mine who is a postman. He listens to a lot, walking 4 hours a day which is the perfect way to consume talking books. But he did something I wasn't really aware of: he gets books via Google Books and sets their speakbot up to tell the story to him. I know Kindle did this waaaay back when they first launched, and my friend tells me that is how he started doing it, but lawyers got involved and argued that it contravines the talking book right in the contracts, when kindle had only paid for ebook rights. Or something. I'm vague on the details. 

So I tried it. is a site with great voices which sound, well, natural. Ish. Just cut and paste text and it will read it to you, in a variety of male, female, British, American, French, German voices and more (all hilariously nicknamed things like 'Bruce', 'Graham' and 'Audrey'). It works. Mostly. I also got the app for my phone (which comes with free auto-installed versions of Alice in Wonderland and Sherlock Holmes Stories) and the extension for my web browser which can read my emails to me.

But of course I am behind the times in all this. The Amazon Echo will already speak to you like your best (if slightly robotic) mate, and Google are hot on their heels with what is now called a 'Digital Assistant'. So what next? Well, the sky is the limit. How about an interactive story for the Echo, one that you can choose where the story goes? Or you can place yourself in the story and ask the characters questions? You can be the detective in the murder mystery. With artificial intelligence and natural sounding voices on the up, this should be possible very soon. It just needs the right combination of writers and programmers – thinking about it, it is essentially a text adventure like those of the 1980s but read out loud by the computer.
By Peter Langston [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But just as iPhones surprised everyone with their ubiquitousness, and pushed the tablet revolution onwards, maybe the next big thing is not voice activated? Could it be Virtual Reality, gesture activated or linking directly to your neurons? Will it take place not via a speaker or a screen, or even a book, but centred in your own mind? The future is limitless.


Dan Metcalf is a writer in SW England. His new book, Codebusters, is out in July 2017.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

What can a writer do? by Anne Booth

I'm so sorry I am late posting this this morning - It is 7.55 and I have only just realised the time and day.

Part of the reason is that there is too much going on at the moment. My dad is very ill in hospital and apart from visiting him and worrying about him, I have been involved in various meetings - some frustrating - others good- with different people to make sure he gets the best care. The whole thing has been further complicated by the closure of our local A & E and the downgrading of the hospital Dad is in, and that, in turn,  has made me very motivated to support the wonderful staff who have asked me to get involved with the campaign to save it. That has involved me in finding out more about the world of politics and the economics of austerity etc, which as writers and readers we already knew also impacts libraries and librarians and teaching assistants and school budgets. It seems there is so much hardship and suffering all over our country - and then we look abroad and see all the suffering there and it is easy to despair or have your heart break.

Grenfell Tower is a national tragedy with so many stories - stories of heroism, of unbearable waste of life, of greed, of refugees fleeing from war to find safety, only to suffer the trauma of a fire, of dishonesty and violence, but also of love and amazing bravery - including that of the young Grenfell GCSE students who turned up to their exams the next day in their pyjamas. It was noticeable when residents were interviewed about the criminal neglect of their home and how they felt treated with contempt, that one of the things cited as evidence of that contempt  was the closure of their local library and how it had been sold off to a local private school. 

I remember hearing Elizabeth Laird interviewed about how she felt terrible about the refugee crisis and her friend said - you are a writer - write. So she did.

I am so glad that authors and those in publishing are coming together to raise money for The Red Cross to help those in Grenfell Towers, and I thought that maybe the best thing for me today is simply to share the details of this. Authors can donate lots - I think I am going to offer to name some characters in forthcoming books - and anyone can bid for something amazing.

Lastly - through all of this we have to draw strength from the Good.

Here is an example - the heroism and self restraint and bravery of the Imam of the Finsbury Mosque after the recent horrid and fatal attack.

As writers, the act of writing itself is something we need to do - and as readers, reading beautiful things helps us.  Through all of these events - personal, national, international, children's books comfort me, and top of them all are books by Shirley Hughes, so I leave you with an illustration to cheer you.

It is from 'Alfie and the Birthday Surprise' by Shirley Hughes. If you need cheering, follow her twitter account and you will always find something to make you feel better.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

"Wait for me! Wait for me!" - Joan Lennon

Last month Lucy Coats gave us an excellent post titled Comfort Books and Writing Heroes which introduced me to the also excellent Robin McKinley.  Thank you, Lucy!  I've been gobbling her books up and loving them.

                                              Robin McKinley with the hellhounds, Chaos and Darkness

And then, at the end of Rose Daughter, I came across the Author's Note, and this description of the writing of books:   

"I've long said my books 'happen' to me. They tend to blast in from nowhere, seize me by the throat, and howl, Write me! Write me now! But they rarely stand still long enough for me to see what and who they are, before they hurtle away again, and so I spend a lot of my time running after them, like a thrown rider after an escaped horse, saying, Wait for me! Wait for me! and waving my notebook in the air."

That's how it is for me, so much better put than I've ever managed!  Often, as writers, we recognize aspects of other writers' practice, but often, also, it's not absolutely, totally, down-to-the-last-detail how it is for us.  But this is.

McKinley had other things to say in these notes that I found interesting and thought-provoking, such as:

"If you're a storyteller, your own life streams through you, onto the page, mixed up with the life the story itself brings; you cannot, in any useful or genuine way, separate the two."


"The thing that tells me when one of the pictures in my head or phrases in my ear is a story, and not a mere afternoon's distraction, is its life, its strength, its vitality.  If you were picking up stones in the dark, you would know when you picked up a puppy instead.  It's warm; it wriggles; it's alive."

But the real snap moment for me was that throat-grabbing, demanding wind out of nowhere, and then, that galloping horse.  And I'm adding the painting below as an encouraging metaphor, for myself and anyone else who needs it, of those wonderful moments when the book decides to trot back, even if just to encourage us to keep on chasing.

Xu Beihong Galloping Horse

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Out this month, for ages 11+: Walking Mountain.