Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August British Book Challenge 2011: The good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ

Title: The good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ
Author: Philip Pullman
Published: Canongate Books ltd, 2010

This is a story. In this ingenious and spell-binding retelling of the life of Jesus, Philip Pullman revisits the most influential story ever told. Charged with mystery, compassion and enormous power, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ throws fresh light on who Jesus was and asks the reader questions that will continue to resonate long after the final page is turned. For, above all, this book is about how stories become stories. 
from Publisher's website
Black clouds: I'm slightly swapping the order of the review this time, because frankly that's how I felt about it. The book is written in the style of the bible, which, eh, well let's face it, while full of amazing stories and an all time best seller, is not written in a very gripping way. I felt alienated and disconnected from the characters, the main ones being Jesus and Christ. And apart from the clever twists, I kind of already knew what was going to happen.
 Star parts:  And in a way, that's the beauty of the book. In big gold letters on the back of the book are the words: This is a story. Read the blurb above, it's all about how stories become stories, and that is when the story kicks off. When Christ is confronted by the stranger who asks why he is writing Jesus's words down the story takes off. It's no longer a clever retelling of the most retold story in the world, now it becomes a story in its own right. What will Christ do, what are Jesus's motivations, who is he, because Pullman doesn't paint him as a god, far from it. In the end, being a bit of a story teller myself, I found myself liking the book more and more. The last line is an absolute classic. 

   Do I recommend it: Yes, yes I do. Because the beginning, the bit I didn't like, that is all part of it really. I think it's Pullman's way of saying that it's the story that counts, THIS is how you write a story. But, that's what I think. I'd like to know what you think if you've read it. 

This is the eleventh book I've reviewed for the British Book Challenge.

Also just in case you had forgotten, there is NO USE CRYING about going back to work TOMORROW, but if you don't believe me, then come back tomorrow to find out why Zannah Kearns thinks so too. It will all be very exciting, I promise you.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Getting to know you: Beth Kemp

Last week, I signed up for Rach Harrie's Third Writer's Platform-Building Campaign. She has put hours into organising link-ups and challenges and what not so that we, the writerly bloggers can get together, find each other and build our platforms. Now does this kind of thing work? Well, I for one am not expecting my readership to jump from double digits to quadruple. For me, it would be nice to get to know some people, and that's what this series of interviews is all about. Thanks to Rachael, I've had the chance to get to know a few people a bit more. I've found out where they are on their writing journey, if they are still unpublished, self-published or published. But I wanted to start this series with a special interview. If some of you are a bit dubious about whether these challenges work, I wanted to start with an interview to show you that: yes challenges do help you make new friends. See, Beth is a fellow campaigner, but I met her at the beginning of the year when we both signed up to do the British Book Challenge. We started to follow each other's blogs and we found out we had one or two things in common et voila. Without further ado, read on, and you guys get to know Beth too. 

So, like me Beth, you have a full time job (6th Form English teacher) and you're a parent, how do you fit in the writing?
With difficulty! It helps that my kids aren't little now (the youngest is almost 8), so their demands aren't so constant. My family are really supportive of my writing, thankfully. I don't know how I'd manage if they didn't take it seriously and encourage me when I'm struggling. My husband is a stay-at-home Dad so I don't have housework or laundry to worry about and it's quite easy to find family time as there's only one job (and school) to work around.

The job can get in the way though! As you well know, teaching is not a 9-5 job, so it's a question of being really disciplined about how much of my time I allow it to take up. The non-fiction writing I've been successful with so far is all teaching-related so sometimes I'm doubling up by producing something for publication that I will also be using in the classroom myself. I'm trying to work on fiction daily at the moment, even if it's literally only for a few minutes. 

So you write fiction and non-fiction; what are the similarities and differences between the two?  
I feel quite differently about fiction and non-fiction. For me, the non-fiction has always been commissioned or agreed before I start writing and, to some extent, I'm writing to someone else's plan. Even when I'm producing teaching materials or articles for students which I have pitched (and are therefore my ideas), they're still driven by what A Level English students need to know or be able to do. The fiction stuff, however, is always free and unconstrained. I realise of course that's not entirely true - we need to write what children are likely to want to read - but there is a much greater freedom in the fiction work.  

Did non-fiction lead to writing fiction or vice versa? Or have you always done both?
I'd written fiction as a child and teenager, but gave up in my mid-late teens, believing it had all been done and I had nothing to add. I only really picked it up again once I'd had some success with the non-fiction stuff: that's what led me to take my own writing seriously again. I'd made a website for my students with revision notes etc, which has grown and become quite well-used. The networking I'd done through that led to writing for student magazines and an offer to collaborate on a textbook. Those things were the encouragement I needed to try fiction writing again. I'm glad I did; fiction writing gives me so much pleasure. 

I'm a  little obsessed by this, so are you a plotter or pantster?
Absolutely plotter. I plan the non-fiction too - I can't start without knowing where I'm going. I have to be careful that it doesn't become a busywork kind of procrastination, but I do work best with fairly detailed chapter-level plans when writing stories. For non-fiction, I'll have word counts by section or topic to help me as well.  

As a fellow writer, can you share your top writing tip?
Read your work aloud when you're starting fine editing (i.e. not big plot stuff, but word choice and sentence structure). Yes, you may feel like an idiot, but you will catch things you'd otherwise have missed.

I like to share things I find that help me to write, so what's your most valuable writing resource?
My family. Largely my husband. He believes in my writing as worthwhile and valuable - to my mental health as well as it having brought in extra pennies - and helps me not to see it as personal indulgence. The girls are also supportive and know to leave me alone when I'm writing, but that's because they see that Daddy takes it seriously, I'm sure.  
Ah! I guess this is one resource we can't share then :)

So to finish off this week's interview, why did you join the challenge?
I've been blogging a lot more over the summer and it's something I want to continue once term restarts, but I do find it a lot easier with a focus or structure. I enjoyed the A-Z Challenge a lot and found the restriction of themed posts led me to write about some really interesting things that I wouldn't have come up with normally. I read quite a lot of blogs and feel ready to pick up some more, but it's not always easy to discover new blogs to follow. This campaign is perfect for showcasing blogs by people with similar and complementary interests. I'm looking forward to making new friends - and continuing to get to know others!

Thanks for the interesting questions. I've enjoyed trying to explain some of my feelings about writing.
Thank you Beth, and I hope you'll join me next week for our next campaigner. If you'd like to find out more about Beth, you can find her at Thoughts from the Hearthfire, and on Twitter as @BethKemp

Also before this post wraps up, I just want to remind you that there is NO USE CRYING about going back to work on Thursday 1st September. In fact there's just NO USE CRYING at all, but why? Be sure to pop back on the 1st to find out why. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Memory: DDR

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As well as me going back to work on Thursday 1st September there will be something very exciting going on right here, on this blog. Be sure you pop back on the 1st to READ ALL ABOUT IT.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

August British Book Challenge 2011: The Book of Dead Days

Title: The book of dead days
Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Title: Orion Children's, 2004

The days between 27 December and New Year's Eve are dead days - days when spirits roam and magic shifts restlessly just beneath the surface of our everyday lives.There is a man, Valerian, whose time is running out, who must pay the price for the pact he made with evil so many years ago. His servant is Boy, a child with no name and no past; a child he treats with contempt, but who serves his master well and finds solace in the company of his only friend, Willow. Unknown to any of them it is Boy who holds the key to their destiny. 

Star parts:  I feel like I read this forever ago, but it's just that I've had a bit of reading spree since I read it. So without further ado, the star parts are... all of it. There we go totally unbiased, unjudgemental reviewing here. Go on, go and read it if you haven't already. All right I'll tell you a bit more. Well straight away Boy (who is the main character by the way) starts off in a sticky situation, but the situation he's in at the beginning is nothing compared to the situation he finds himself in by the end of the night, or the next day or the day after that. Things just keep getting worse for Boy and Valerian keeps getting darker and darker. 

One of the things I liked about Sedgwick's crafting of character is that nobody is completely evil and the good guys aren't completely good. Boy has his flaws. We are never quite sure about Kessler and right till the end I wondered if Valerian might act differently. Willow is probably the only character who is what she is.  

Another thing I really liked about the book is that some things seem completely fantastical, but are eventually revealed as trickery, whereas other things remain completely fantastical.

The plot is amazing and the pacing just right. So...

Black clouds: There's a sequel and I haven't read it. 

 Do I recommend it: I totally do, whole heartedly and without doubt. 

This is the tenth book I've reviewed for the British Book Challenge.

Monday, August 22, 2011

I've done gone and joined yet another...

...Blog challenge. And it wasn't easy to be honest. There was this whole post to read, there were all these hoops to jump through and then I needed to choose which groups I wanted to be a part of. And I don't read instructions easily and follow them even less easily. But you know it just seemed a kind of cool thing to do. I'm going back to work in September and I thought to myself that Rachael Harrie's challenge was exactly what I needed to get me over that hump. 

Don't get me wrong, I love my job. I am truly privileged to help children learn in a way that encourages them to learn in a school where they learn to love learning. I can't ask better than that. But I am also privileged to have a job that allows me the time to write and I've been a writer these last two months, so bear with me, because it's going to be a little hard pushing that job to the sides and going back to the paying one.

Anyway enough gushing and about this blog challenge. Well it's called the Third Writer's Platform-Building Campaign. It runs right from yesterday to October 31st. The idea is that a whole bunch of writers at different stages of the journey get together and we kind of promote each other. There are three blog challenges and there may be prizes. You know me, I like prizes. Other than that, the idea is just to get to know people. So that's what I'm going to be doing. If you would like to join, you have until August 31st to do so. Go on you know you want to.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The technical delights of being on holiday

The Windmill - Wimbledon Common
A couple of years ago, just before we were about to go on holiday the Frog joked about how I would cope for a whole month without the internet. At the time I felt very justified reminding him of  this comment every time I caught him on his Blackberry. But that was before (cue dramatic ta da da dah music). This summer I went to London fully aware that I would continue to work on my WIP even though I left without a USB key or huge wad of papers.  

The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi
If somehow you have not heard of the wonders of the simple program Dropbox, it's a little box, somewhere in a technical cloud where you can drop all your files. There was a bit of a hooha this summer as they changed their terms and conditions, but I for one am far too enamoured to be jumping ship just yet. If it means that anywhere I go I can have access to my WIP, then I for one am happy.

Just before I left for London I had a bit of a light bulb moment about my WIP, which resulted in me changing my MC. In the past this would have been bloody horrendous, but I have to say that Scrivener has revolutionised my life. OK to begin with I thought it was a huge problem and had a bit of a panic all over Twitter, Litopia and FB, but after a deep breath, I read all the index cards and saw the light. What happened was that I wrote some new chapters to establish the new MC, popped them into the right place (just like that) and then all I had to (all I had to do) was revise the old chapters to change the POV from old MC to new MC. Sweet huh?

Siena Cathdral
So with this in mind I took my laptop to Italy. I know, I took my laptop to Italy, but, I was pretty good. I only worked when the bubba was having (a two hour) nap, and we went to Assisi, very briefly to Perugia, Siena and Arezzo and I revised all those chapters I was telling you about and ended up right back where I was before I changed the MC. You see there can be balance. The FIL did keep commenting though that next time we went on holiday it would be good if everybody left the computers behind as between fifteen of us there were six laptops and four iPhones!

Which brings me onto the last of my techie delights: the iPhone. It's a phone, I can read the news, find the nearest boulangerie and (we checked today) even measure how loudly I snore, but more importantly I have the Dropbox app on it which means I can read my WIP on twelve hour car drives, send chapters off for critting, receive e mails with chapters and even tap out whole notes with story ideas I have while on those twelve hour car rides.

Piazza del Campo - Siena
Another thing I did on the iPhone was read an article about Lucy Kellaway's new idea called: 'worliday'. The idea is that people go on holiday and spend a part of each day working.To be honest when I read it, the whole idea just seemed ridiculous and reading some of the comments I realised I'm not the only one, but then I reread the last line:
In my suitcase will be my sunglasses and Wellington boots - as you never know with the weather up there - as well as my Blackberry and computer.
I didn't exactly go on a 'worliday' as a 'wriliday' with my family and pals: Dropbox, Scrivener and iPhone. Personally, I kind of recommend it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Book Review: Skullduggery Pleasant

Title: Skullduggery Pleasant
Author: Derek Landy
Published: Harper Collins Children's Book, 2007

Meet the great Skulduggery Pleasant: wise-cracking detective, powerful magician, master of dirty tricks and burglary (in the name of the greater good, of course).
Oh yeah. And dead.

Then there's his sidekick, Stephanie. She's… well, she's a twelve-year-old girl. With a pair like this on the case, evil had better watch out…

Stephanie's uncle Gordon is a writer of horror fiction. But when he dies and leaves her his estate, Stephanie learns that while he may have written horror, it certainly wasn't fiction.
Pursued by evil forces intent on recovering a mysterious key, Stephanie finds help from an unusual source – the wisecracking skeleton of a dead wizard.

When all hell breaks loose, it's lucky for Skulduggery that he's already dead. Though he's about to discover that being a skeleton doesn't stop you from being tortured, if the torturer is determined enough. And if there's anything Skulduggery hates, it's torture… Will evil win the day? Will Stephanie and Skulduggery stop bickering long enough to stop it? One thing's for sure: evil won't know what's hit it.
Star parts: I always love it when a kid's book is recommended to me by a kid. The mother of the kid who 'lurves' these books said she thought it was a bit splat. So I thought I would take a wee look. Landy's writing style is funny. The majority of the characters are engaging, the story is definitely a page turner, and there's splat, but most people make it out alive... or they were already dead in the first place so it doesn't matter. 

The story takes place in Dublin, but in a part that nobody pays too much attention to. Stephanie Edgely decides to join forces with Skullduggery to get to the bottom of her Uncle's mysterious death. What happens along the way is all very thrilling and imaginative like the clothes that protect her from the worst of the dangerous antics she gets up to...

Black clouds: But! You knew there was one coming right? There are pages and pages of witty reposte between Skullduggery and Stephanie. It doesn't serve to move the plot on and it seems like it was just included to show how witty Landry could be and to be perfectly honest I got bored with it. Secondly the characters I found the blossoming investigator Stephanie and Tanith Low a little similar.

  Do I recommend it: But! (Oh look another one) The story was exciting. I wanted to read to the end. When the humour wasn't overdone and beaten to death it was funny. I can see why kids like it. I'm not going to say don't read it, I'm just going to say it wasn't my cup of tea. How's that?

Monday, August 15, 2011

The holiday is over

I thought I was going to post a kind of resume of my hols in London and Tuscany, but instead I found myself starting this political ramble about the UK riots and so it would seem that I have something to say about this past weeks' events and I should just get on with it.

I'm old enough to remember the riots in the '80's and being one of Thatcher's children I've seen society change around me. When I was a kid, the neighbourhood I lived in was still working class, where I would come home to tales of nights spent in the Anderson shelter during air raids. As these people died or moved away each house was gradually yuppified until even if I had wanted to, there was no hope of ever living in the same place I grew up in. I felt quietly left behind by the people who just wanted to make money and lots of it, I doggedly pursued my goal of being a teacher.

I'm not sure who found the '80's riots a surprise. I didn't. The day National Front posters were pasted outside my school we leant over the fence during PE and ripped them off. All brown people were called 'Pakis' and everybody else of a darker complexion 'wogs'. There was some kind of complicated colour code to do with the laces you wore in your DM's which singled you out as a Skin or a racist Skin. When there is that kind of constant tension things kick off. That's why the 2005 riots here in France did not surprise me. Yet again you have a whole generation of people who were born and brought up in France, who thought of themselves as French, but whose educational prospects were low, getting a good job downright difficult if you had the wrong name and don't even think about renting an apartment outside of your citè.

After devouring everything I could on Sunday night I woke up on Monday with two conclusions, 1) The BBC news site is a bit facile. Even the features and analysis is a bit lacking in analysis. 2) These riots were different.

Do you remember those days when you were called 'rent a mob' because you went on a march or two? Well maybe we were the same people going on different marches, but we went because we cared about issues. We believed in democracy and the differences in political parties. But look at the ballot boxes today and people don't care enough to vote their own government in . It doesn't matter who you vote in anyway because be they left or right the policies are broadly similar and every government is shit. We fill our lives with 'things' nowadays and the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. My conception of society is just so different from the rioters who are so disenfranchised from society that we have no common ground.

I wondered if my lack of understanding was down to being outside the country for fifteen years, but I read the same lack of comprehension about the mentality of the rioters in the comments pages of many papers and the status updates of my friends in London. What I kept reading again and again was 'disenfranchised', 'marginalised', a society where there is little chance of social mobility and where the gap between rich and poor is constantly growing. I found Cameron's words empty and lacking in analysis. The idea that cutting benefits or evicting rioters is downright stupid and send them to already overcrowded jails and see what happens, that will really solve all the problems.

The last slightly political post I made here was about library cuts, but I do realise that everything is being cut, everything that is a lifeline to the most vulnerable in society, the young and old alike, from libraries to bus services that connect communities. I know that it's easy to proselytise from the comfort of my home, but I do hope that lessons will be learnt and that changes will be made. We changed into a society where it was all about money and borrowing and having and now we are a society that is bankrupt in so many different ways. Is there a way to change this? And if so how? These are the questions I think politicians should be asking in the next few weeks, rather than how hard can we punish these perpetrators. Let us learn from history, instead of repeating the same old mistakes.

Book reviews, writerly rambles and maybe a little summary of my holidays will now resume...

Meanwhile a couple more links:
Art Li: Riots and Evictions
Provoke. history: London and Rioting: Historical Perspective

Friday, August 05, 2011

A Memory: Concorde

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"I see nothing in space as promising as the view from a Ferris wheel."
— E.B. White (The Points of My Compass)


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