Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Alex As Well - Alyssa Brugman

Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman
Review by M

Alex As Well is compulsive reading both for Brugman’s writing style and the novel’s subject matter of gender assignment. Alex As Well tells the story of Alex, who is born with indeterminate sexing but is declared a boy. Now, at fourteen, he decides that really, Alex is a girl. The true grit of this novel is in the rub:  how can something as simple as sex organs create so much fuss?

While in many ways it is an important and delving issues book, the writing style lifts it so that it becomes something much more. The internal dialogues between Alex (she) and Alex-as-well (he) are both moving and funny, and manage to say a lot about being a teenager in general. They help to make a very gritty piece of realism become something occasionally cheerful too.

Stylistically, Brugman takes some chances. There are frequent references to song lyrics, TV, and other contemporary popular culture that were unfamiliar to me. While these reinforced the notion of different experiences, this also slightly distanced me from the text.

Brugman also uses threads from Alex’s mother, Heather’s, internet forums where she vents her concerns and anxieties. These contain deliberate typos (as the immediacy of social media often does) but they work really well as a way of exploring the very different perspectives that parents (and other people) have with regards to both parenting practices and gender assignment and identification.  The parent-child relationship in this novel is a difficult and unpleasant one. It stretches well beyond gender issues and is fraught with all sorts of tensions and not always likeable characters.

Tonally and image-wise, Alex As Well is reminiscent of the film version of 'Breakfast on Pluto' and there are thematic and plot similarities with 'Ma Vie en Rose'.

The most curious and interesting element, for me, is how the novel (whether advertently or not) shows how different responses to intersexing can both subvert and reinforce gender stereotypes. Alex as two (or split) identities as boy-and-girl reinforces gender stereotypes. A focus on bodily aesthetics also takes prominence but through this, and representations of androgyny, it also cleverly asks what is a boy and what is a girl? Can we really tell the difference and does it even matter?

The novel does not offer cut and dry answers and some of the plot seems unlikely and controversial (could a fourteen year old legally and realistically do some of the things that Alex does?), but this possibly goes hand-in-hand with the complexities of the subject matter. Because of this, some readers may find the ending unsatisfying. I did – but I can also see all sorts of reasons why a different ending might not have worked at all.

Alex As Well is a straight talking book that gets down and explores some of the fundamental nitty gritties about Western gendered identities.


UK Publication details: Curious Fox, May 2014, London, paperback
This copy: uncorrected proof from the publisher

Monday, 28 April 2014

Hot Key Young Writers Prize 2013 winner (9-12s) - Lyndon Riggall

Lyndon Riggall won the Hot Key Young Writers Prize 2013 (9-12s category) with Charlie in the Dark, which was also a very popular choice among the very youngest judges! He has won a year's editorial mentoring with Hot Key Books editor, Sara O'Connor. Having been on the judging panel, I'm delighted to have asked Lyndon some get-to-know-you questions so early on in his writing career.

WSD: You won the 9-12 category. What inspired you to write for this age group?

Lyndon Riggall: When I started writing Charlie in the Dark, I really wasn't sure what age group it would be for. I knew it was a kid's book, but it took me a while to realise that I was really writing it for a twelve-year-old version of myself. 9-12 is a wonderful age category to write for, though. For me, it was the period where I became a reader and started to want to be a writer, so I think it's so important that we have new, exciting books for kids of that age.

WSD: What's the most unusual thing you've ever done?

Lyndon Riggall: A few years ago I dressed up as a goth with a group of friends for a social experiment. We did the make-up and everything, just to see how we would be treated when we went around town. I went into a bike shop (as we all know, goths love bikes!) and a woman physically grabbed her young son and dragged him out of my way. I love kids, and to see them scared of me was really upsetting. We weren't very good goths though. We got asked a few times if we were "just pretending." Maybe it was the fact that we were stingy and hadn't bought any hair dye.

WSD: You live in Tasmania. What's one of the best things about it?

Lyndon Riggall: There are so many things I love about Tasmania. The single greatest though is its wildness. Hiking in Tassie is the best way to experience it - there are so many places to go and just disappear into a dense landscape for an epic journey... it's no wonder that people think the Tasmanian tiger might still be out there somewhere! I come up with my best ideas while walking and thinking, and I live in one of the best places to walk and think. Not bad, eh?

WSD: Favourite (and worst!) meal?

Lyndon Riggall: I work part-time at a gourmet burger restaurant and although I've gone through most of the menu as a favourite, right now I'm a real sucker for our veggie burger. Hard to go past that and a nice bowl of chips with a piece of orange and almond cake for dessert. 

On my first year out of home I was late for a party because I was trying to make a stew that wouldn't boil down. My solution to that was to add some flour to thicken it, and turn the heat right up. It did thicken - but was burnt right through within a couple of minutes. I'd make the stew again, but patience is a virtue. I can still taste charred rosemary just thinking about it!

WSD: Do you have any favourite fictional characters (any media)?

Lyndon Riggall: I think my favourite character from any story would have to be The Doctor from 'Doctor Who'. I love the way that the character is re-invented by each generation of his storytellers, and is layered with all of these questions that even over fifty years no-one has revealed the answer to. I always love wise mentors like Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series, and terrifying, complicated villains like The Joker from 'Batman', or the deliciously evil Ursula Monkton from The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

WSD: Who are some of your favourite writers?

Lyndon Riggall: I would say that J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman are the two writers that I credit most with my enthusiasm over books and a desire to write myself. Other children's writers I tore through as a kid (and still love) included: Lemony Snicket, Andy Griffiths, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Sonya Hartnett, Judy Blume, Morris Gleitzman and Paul Jennings.

These days I'm really into Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol-Oates and Joe Hill. I think John Green is fantastic - not only as a writer of fiction, but a vlogger too, and anyone who isn't watching the Vlogbrothers videos needs to get on to it immediately! Who I'm into changes all the time, but I think that list is a pretty good start for anyone looking for a good read!

WSD: You worked in a school?!

Lyndon Riggall:  St. Helens is a small coastal town here where I worked for six months as an Artist in Residence. I worked in the school from Kinder right through to Grade 10, and only ever took writing activities. I loved it! Both of those pics are from my time there. The cartoony drawing is a student's picture of me from a school in St. Helens.

Lyndon Riggall: Thanks so much for the opportunity to have a chat with you! 

WSD: You're welcome, Lyndon. Looking forward to seeing what you and Sara O'Connor from Hot Key Books do with Charlie in the Dark!

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Sara Crowe chat

We sat down for a chat...with Sara Crowe

Sara Crowe's debut children’s novel, Bone Jack, is a compelling and atmospheric read about a teen boy who takes on something bigger and darker than just being the ‘stag’ in the local Stag Chase. Bone Jack shows great care and love for the land that we live on and pass through, and we asked her a few questions to explore this.

Author Sara Crowe
WSD: You tweeted that you've lived seven lives. Can you tell us a bit about these lives?

Sara Crowe: That was actually a reference to the seven incarnations of Eric and Merle in Marcus’s novel Midwinterblood. But in another way we all live many lives. There are the different stages of childhood and adulthood, the ghost lives we imagine we might have lived if we’d made a few different choices, our working lives, home lives, inner lives, the lives we live vicariously through reading, and many others.

I’ve loved my life on the road in the van most of all. Lying in bed at night listening to owls and foxes, walking out on to Uig Sands on Lewis at sunrise, getting blasted by bitter Siberian winds on the Kent coast, walking through woodland in the mist. We’ve visited so many beautiful places and met some extraordinary people, like the man who left his job and set off with his dog in a van to search for fabled lost treasures or the 88 year old Orcadian who sat beside me on a bench and told me all about the killer whales that visit Hoy Sound.     

WSD: For a van-dwelling vagabond, it seems a delightful paradox that your novel, Bone Jack, conjures up a strong and atmospheric connection to Ash (& Bone Jack's) land. Can you tell us a bit about your travelling and your connections (or disconnections) with land?

Sara Crowe: When you meet new people, one of the first questions they ask is ‘Where are you from?’ I’ve always struggled to answer because my parents moved around a lot when I was a child and I was brought up all over England. The characters in Bone Jack have deep roots in their landscape and in some ways I envy that sense of connection and belonging. But wayfarers also have relationships with the landscapes they travel through, and humans were migratory and nomadic long before they became settlers so those relationships are also ancient and have their own lore.

Our travels in our van have been a bit of both ways of being. Always on the move, journeying to places we’d always wanted to visit but somehow never had time to before, places that had become almost mythical in our imaginations. But we were also looking for somewhere that felt like home, somewhere we’d return to live in for at least a few years. We’ve found that place, though we’ll still go off on adventures in our van whenever the urge takes us.

My next book is a story of movement, of characters blown like tumbleweed across lands by forces beyond their control, by wrongs that must be put right. They are strangers to the places they move through but sometimes strangers see and understand things about the land that locals don’t.

WSD: Please tell us about your dog!

Sara Crowe: He’s a big 4 year old hooligan with a soft nature and a very loud bark! We got him when I was seriously ill and waiting for major surgery – not the best time to get a lively puppy but we’re experienced dog owners and worked it all out in advance so it was fine. He loves to come exploring with me (except when it’s raining!). We walk miles every day and do a sort of woodland parkour for dogs, using whatever’s around. I get him to jump over or on to fallen trees or boulders, go through gaps in hedges, weave between trees, track objects I’ve hidden, that sort of thing. It all has to be done on command so it’s good training as well as great fun.  

WSD: For readers who enjoyed Bone Jack, can you recommend other novels (or poetry) they might enjoy?

Sara Crowe: I strongly recommend Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence and Alan Garner’s Alderley books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Boneland) and his novel Elidor. Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge and Crown of Acorns are wonderful too, as is Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. Also Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood and Nigel McDowell’s strange and beautiful Tall Tales from Pitch End.
You can read M's review of Bone Jack here.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

World Book Night giving

In search of male humans on World Book Night 

23 April 2014 would have been William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, is our dog’s 7th birthday, and is the first time I’ve been a World Book Night giver!

World Book Night is one of The Reading Agency charity’s programmes that aims to inspire a love of reading. Twenty books are selected for special edition World Book Night titles because they are brilliant reads. Thousands of volunteers apply to give one of these titles to people on World Book Night who are not regular readers or don’t own books. I chose The Humans by Matt Haig because it is hilarious and heartwarming, and Haig is a Yorkshire based author – and I’m giving in Yorkshire.

This special World Book Night  postcard was delivered with every copy of The Humans

It may not be night yet but my copies of The Humans have been given! Little M and I took a tote bag, a rucksack and a dog on a sunny trail around our local village and town in search of ‘non-readers’. After seeing this research that suggests 30% of men don’t read books, I went in search of men. Books were given (and turned down!) by men working on construction sites, in builders’ merchants and hardware stores, in garages, in bike shops, in pubs, and in their own homes. Four copies went to women (who were more regular though not prolific readers): a female plumber, a charity worker, a shopkeeper, and a receptionist.

Many of the recipients were gracious and excited, and at least one copy is set to go on holiday and be read by the pool. Some recipients were reluctant because they didn’t read and thought they would be more likely to pass it on to someone else. Some people turned the offer down outright because they didn’t want to read and a few were ineligible because their lives were already surrounded by books and the pleasure of reading (they weren’t sure if this response would delight or sadden me!!). We also met another Giver on our route who was giving Peter James’ The Perfect Murder and it was lovely to chat with him (he also loves The Humans!).

It was great fun chatting along the way with people who loved reading, or were delighted (and surprised) to give it a go (if they can find the time!). I hope they really enjoy The Humans!

World Book Night special edition of The Humans, front and back cover

You can read my review of The Humans here.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Bone Jack - Sara Crowe

Bone Jack by Sara Crowe
Review by M

Bone Jack by Sara Crowe
Bone Jack is wonderful storytelling: an engaging plot, lifelike characters and absorbingly atmospheric settings and language. I had Saturday morning breakfast in bed so that I could finish it.
Ash is fifteen and has outrun all the other local boys to become the ‘stag’ in the upcoming stage chase, where he must race across the hills and return uncaptured by the ‘hound boys’ who will chase him. There are lots of local myths and folklore about the stag chase, and when Ash starts to ‘see’ dark things out on the hills and in the woods, he feels threatened and can’t decide what he should do.

This debut is a compelling and atmospheric read about a teen boy who takes on something bigger and darker than just being the ‘stag’ in the local Stag Chase. Bone Jack shows great care for the living land that we inhabit and pass through.
Likeable and complex characters, thrilling suspense, chilling scenes and thoughtfully intriguing subplots boost this novel. Alongside the main plot, different kinds of absent (but loving) fatherhood; conflicting loyalties between friendships and foot-and-mouth ravaged farmlands; and post-traumatic stress disorder, are all easily woven through the novel.

Genrewise, Bone Jack is light fantasy or perhaps magical realism, where the story takes place in a real, recognisable world but the characters can’t figure out if they’re ‘seeing things’ or not. If you’ve read Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls, it’s a similar mix to that novel (but the stories are not alike at all).
The publisher’s age guidance for this novel is 12+. I suspect slightly younger readers, who’re emotionally mature enough to deal with questions about the taking of life, may enjoy this novel too.

As a debut, Bone Jack has set the bar high for Sara Crowe’s second novel.

Publication details: Andersen Press, April 2014, London, paperback.
This copy: review copy from the publisher


Thursday, 17 April 2014

Virago Modern Classics Children’s 1st Anniversary

Virago Modern Classics celebrates its first anniversary of publishing children’s books this month and adds two more titles to its list. Virago’s editor, Donna Coonan, also speaks to us about children and classic books.

Virago “is the outstanding international publisher of books by women” and aims to put “women centre stage”. So says Virago's website. That, and it's classics list which focuses on rediscoveries and redefinitions pretty much sums up why my heart does a whooping flippety flop every time I see the apple of its logo on a book’s spine.

Oh, those covers!
I’m sincerely delighted that they’ve added children’s literature to the Virago Modern Classics (VMC) list. The first I knew of it was from the 'Emily' trilogy by LM Montgomery that they published last November. Anyone who’s a childhood fan of Anne of Green Gables will know that these are winners and the cover illustrations by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini are an extra excuse to buy these editions.  Plus, one of our teen book group reviewers attests that Emily of New Moon is excellent and are there any more?!! (Yes, there are  - two!). Here’s a link to a review from one of the Classics Club’s readers.

Published today are two more titles from Rumer Godden. An Episode of Sparrows and The Dark Horse. I’ve read the opening pages and therein lies the promise of something richly deep and slightly different for today’s readers, both children and adults alike. Godden’s ballet novels, Thursday’s Children and Listen to the Nightingale, launched the VMC list last year.

I asked Donna Coonan, the VMC editor, a couple of questions about the children’s list.

WSD: What do you think makes a children's classic for today's readers?

Donna Coonan: Children are discerning readers and if a book is written in a didactic manner or seems patronising in any way, they will see it a mile off. You can’t write down to a child, just as you can’t speak down to them. Rumer was a writer who could write as eloquently and as feelingly for children as she could for adults, and her characters are always beautifully realised, and you care deeply for them. Her children are never two dimensional, but fully formed and recognisable. There is humour and there is heartbreak, and she doesn’t shirk away from difficult subjects. Rumer relished the challenge of writing for children and said that her children’s books were just as important as her books for adults: after every novel she wrote a children’s book ‘because of the discipline, and the smaller the child, the greater the discipline’. It is the quality of her writing that shines through, and they speak as much to children today as they did to her first readers. They may be set in a different time, but the stories are universal. That is the mark of a classic.

WSD: What are your visions for the VMC children's list; what will distinguish it from other modern children's classics lists? 

Donna Coonan: The reason that the Virago Modern Classics list exists is to bring back into print wonderful books that have been neglected or overlooked but will be enjoyable to readers today, and we are expanding this ethos for another generation by publishing classics for children. So many of our books – from Rosamond Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca – were discovered by our readers as teenagers that it seems logical to move into publishing for a wider age range.


For LM Montgomery fans, there is more good news for June: Jane of Lintern Hill and Rilla of Ingleside will be published.

Now, where’s my apple…….(currently reading Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn before its BBC televising next Monday).


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

WoMentoring Project for aspiring women writers launches today

A new scheme offering free peer mentoring to aspiring women writers launches today.  The WoMentoring Project aims to offer insight, knowledge and support to women writers at the beginning of their careers. Mentoring is voluntarily offered from a pool of over 60 women working in publishing as authors, editors, literary agents and illustrators.

The WoMentoring Project is managed by novelist Kerry Hudson. Without a budget, the entire project is currently dependent on volunteered time and skills. Individual mentors will determine what they can offer with their mentee, and mentorships are likely to differ. Organisers of the project said that, “In an industry where male writers are still reviewed and paid more than their female counterparts in the UK, we want to balance the playing field. Likewise, we want to give female voices that would otherwise find it hard to be heard, a greater opportunity of reaching their true potential.”
WoMentoring Project mentor, Shelley Harris (author of Jubilee), said that “mentoring can mean the difference between getting published and getting lost in the crowd. It can help a good writer become a brilliant one. But till now, opportunities for low-income writers to be mentored were few and far between. This initiative redresses the balance; I’m utterly delighted to be part of the project”.
Alison Hennessy, Senior Editor at Harvill Secker, said she knows from her own authors “how isolating an experience writing can often be, especially when you’re just starting out, and so I really wanted to be involved. I hope that knowing that there is someone on your side in those early days will give writers courage and confidence in their work”.

Francesca Main, Editorial Director at Picador, said her career “has been immeasurably enriched by working with inspiring women writers, yet the world of publishing would have been inaccessible to me without the time and support I was given when first starting out.  The WoMentoring Project is a wonderful, necessary thing and I’m very proud to be taking part in it”.
Mentors also include authors Peggy Riley (Amity &Sorrow), Julie Mayhew (Red Ink), Keris Stainton (Emma Hearts LA)  previously reviewed and interviewed by We Sat Down; and children’s literary agent, Louise Lamont (agent for Red Ink).

Applicant writers (mentees) should submit a 1000 word writing sample and a 500 word statement about why they would benefit from free mentoring. All applications must be made for a specific mentor. Mentees can only apply for one mentor at a time. 


Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Hot Key Young Writers Prize 2013 winner, Abigail Slater

Alaskan-based Abigail Slater is the Young Adult section winner of the Hot Key Prize Young Writers Prize 2013, announced earlier today at the London Book Fair. Abigail has won a year’s mentoring with Hot Key Books’ publisher, Emily Thomas. Being a judge on this year’s prize panel, I read Abigail’s winning manuscript, The Lucky Bones, which is essentially about Sarah, a teenage girl who is battling a gang and seeking justice for a massacre that decimated her community and their land. Of course, we sat down for a chat and asked Abigail a bit more about herself (and left all the American spellings as is!). 

WSD: You’re interested in female superheroes. Which females have inspired you?

Abigail Slater: A lot of the females who have inspired me on a personal level are right here in my community. Katie John, an indigenous rights activist here in Alaska, has always managed to worm her way into my heart when it comes to fantastic ladies. As far as female superheroes go, I have to say that Batgirl and Wonder Woman had a lot to do with my desire to create a superhero of my own. They're strong and cool, and I've always wanted to add to the list of strong, cool women.

WSD: Your descent is Unangax, Irish, and Norwegian. Does this influence your writing?

Abigail Slater: I think being raised in several very different cultures has allowed me to pull from each for inspiration. Heritage is such an important thing for all human beings no matter where we are in the world, so I do have a tendency to draw from my own, especially when I'm working on a science fiction or fantasy story.

As far as my Unangax heritage goes, it is the one I am closest to because I was raised in my homeland. The Unangax are originally from the Aleutian Islands here in Alaska, and parts of our history (including the Aleutian Island Evacuations and the boarding schools) served as inspiration for Sarah's story in The Lucky Bones.  

Here is a link to a website that explains the Aleutian Island Evacuations way better than I ever could: . It's a long article, but if you scroll way down to the bottom and skim Chapter X, you'll have the inspirational context for my novel.

Abigail (right) with her sister, ReBecca, at an ice sculpture exhibit in downtown Anchorage

WSD: What is the most interesting thing about Anchorage (Alaska), where you live?

Abigail Slater: I'm torn on this one, because Alaska is a very weird place. I'd say it's a tie, because that's the cheater's way of not having to choose.

The first most interesting thing about where I live is that once you leave the main city of Anchorage, you can drive and drive and drive and never get anywhere substantial. In other words, you could drive from sun up to sun down and still be in the middle of nowhere.

The second most interesting thing is being able to see moose all over the place here, especially in the summer when they come into neighborhoods and start eating people's trees and garbage. It's not a sight that I've ever gotten anywhere else!

Moose at the side of the road. Photo credit: Eric van Thiel, A friend of Abigail's.

Cuteness! Bears playing around. Photo credit: Eric van Thiel

WSD: Have you ever eaten Baked Alaska?

Abigail Slater: I have! Strangely enough, it's not as popular here as it is in other places. My father made it once a few years ago and it was very good, but I've never seen it on a menu before. We must be behind the times.

WSD: What are your favourite novels?

Abigail Slater: My favorite novels are definitely anything written by Libba Bray, whose wonderful books I've only recently discovered, and the books of Sarah Dessen (Just Listen is my favorite). Both of these authors write in very clear, distinct voices for their characters, and you can tell that they are having fun with their stories. That is the kind of author I aspire to be.

WSD: Is there anything else that you're bursting to say?

Abigail Slater: I just want to say that I'm grateful to Hot Key Books and all of the judges who volunteered their time to pick a winner. I never thought I'd make it this far, not even in my wildest dreams, and I owe it completely to you guys and to my amazing Native community here in Alaska, who have all supported me through the writing process. Quyana, and thank you all!

Best wishes to everyone over on your side of the world!

WSD: You’re welcome and congratulations. I’m looking forward to seeing where your mentoring prize takes you.

View from Point Woronzof in Anchorage.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Dead Ends - Erin Lange

Dead Ends by Erin Lange
Review by M

Dead Ends by Erin LangeDead Ends is a story that is as much about bullying, friendship and family as it is an unusual teen road trip adventure with plot threads and themes aplenty.

An unusual and forced relationship is at the heart of the story. Dane (the violent bully with a single mum who frames winning Lottery cards), is wisely chosen by Billy D (the new kid on the block who also has Down syndrome) to be his protector in school. As Billy D holds all the cards, a heartwarming (and frequently comic) friendship develops as he reels Dane in on a journey to find both their dads.

The novel cleverly intertwines an exploration of different relationships (and power). The obvious relationship is that of bully and bullied but teenage friendship and being a good and ‘real’ parent are also prominent. Both Billy D and Dane live with their mothers but their fathers are curiously absent. Another character, however, has two fathers who are gay - and neither one is her biological father.

While Dane is a bully and a very violent one, the novel’s tone is fiercely warm. Lange manages to paint Dane as a sympathetic and believable character - but she doesn’t let him entirely off the hook. She paints a very interesting view of bullying.

While friendship and family are at this novel’s heart, Dead Ends will also likely appeal to clue-finding road trip fans. These elements add charm and action but neither of them dominate the novel. What could have become a ludicrous storyline actually works out to be enjoyable, believable, and quite moving.

Publication details: 6 January 2014, Faber and Faber, London, hardback
This copy: uncorrected proof from the publisher