Thursday, 29 April 2010

My very own Bigotgate.

The ghastly - but entertaining - mess that is Bigotgate is, it strikes me, quintessentially British.

British manners dictate that only in the most acute of circumstances (a murder, for example) would you actually call someone a bigot to their face. That would, after all, be rude. In Britain you keep your thoughts to yourself, smile graciously and, after they’ve disappeared, turn to your friends. ‘Did you hear that? What that woman said? Unbelievable!’ This is particularly true when dealing with older people. Actually telling your granny that it’s not acceptable to talk about ‘darkies’ or ‘those people.’? It’s just not on.

Gordon Brown may have shown himself up to be two-faced, rude, grumpy and inept. But the other options available to him - to challenge Mrs Duffy’s supposed bigotry, to state loud and proud ‘I think you’re a racist’…well, that’s just not done. Imagine how the press would have crucified him. Imagine the headlines.

I know this because I used to live in the Netherlands. There, no one would have paused for a moment in telling Mrs Duffy what they thought of her supposed views. ‘I think you’re bigoted’, a Dutch politician would have said. ‘Oh no I’m not...I think you’re stupid and out of touch,’ she’d have replied. The whole culture is based on a reverence for free speech that constantly shocked me for its sheer offensiveness.

My colleagues in Amsterdam were completely baffled by my attempts to deliver feedback tactfully. ‘You’re so…so…diplomatic’ one of them said, eventually. ‘Why don’t you just say what you mean? And why do you talk about the weather all the time? There’s nothing we can do about it.’

And I also know this because I recently had my own Bigotgate moment. My son plays football every week at a training ground, which has its own café. My friend and I were buying coffee when a woman rushed in. She wanted to complain about her drink, and started shouting at the young woman behind the counter. ‘It’s not what I wanted…I demand that you change it…I’m not paying any extra.’

My friend and I looked away. I studied the sandwiches. She scuttled off to the loo.

Angry Woman got more furious as the girl behind the counter tried to defend herself. ‘This wasn’t what we asked for. It’s wrong. It’s always wrong. Why don’t you understand me?’

Angry Woman tried to catch my eye. I avoided it. The centre manager who’d been dozing behind his desk came to back up the café girl. My friend and I grimaced at eachother.

The centre manager asked Angry Woman to wait outside for her free replacement cup of coffee. ‘Why don’t you go back where you came from?’ she shrieked from the threshold. ‘Go back to Poland…’

The centre manager took her cup of coffee. The girl behind the counter burst into tears. My friend and I sprang into action. We condemned Angry Woman, told the girl she’d done everything right. We loved her coffee. That woman - the bigot - had no right to speak to her like that.

We complained to the organisers of the football matches. We gave evidence against Angry Bigot Woman. It turned out she was the mother of a boy from another team in our football club. Eventually, I think, she was banned from one match.

Every time my friend and I have discussed it since we’ve asked ourselves why we didn’t intervene. Stepped in as soon as the woman started shouting. Told her she was over-stepping the mark.

Why didn’t we? We didn't like to get involved. We were worried about appearing rude. We're not proud of ourselves.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A new deal..

Ta-ra! My new book deal was announced today on the Publisher's Marketplace website. This is what it said:

Keren David's LIA'S GUIDE TO WINNING THE LOTTERY, in which a sixteen-year-old wins £8 million on the lottery, but will her life improve or get even more complicated?!, to Maurice Lyon at Frances Lincoln, for publication in September 2011, by Jenny Savill at Andrew Nurnberg Associates

When I sold When I Was Joe to Frances Lincoln I'd finished it already, and was half-way through Almost True which they bought at the same time. Now I think about it I am completely awestruck that publishers - Frances Lincoln and dtv Junior in Germany - were prepared to back two books by a completely unknown author.

The process for Lia has been different From the point of having the idea last November I've been working on three chapters and an outline, which gave the lovely people at Frances Lincoln enough of an idea to decide whether to make an offer or not.

All that means that although I have a deal for Lia, I don't yet have a manuscript. I do have a deadline, so I might not be blogging very much. I have an outline,but I'm prepared for the characters to surprise me, much as Ty did.

I can however answer the question posed in the announcement. Will her life improve or get even more complicated? Yes and yes.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Confessions of an Amazon Reviewer

I have a confession to make.
I sometimes post anonymous reviews on Amazon.
Now - before all the lovely YA writers who read this blog rush off to check their rare one-star crits for telltale signs of my competitive claws - I can assure you that unlike the academic Orlando Figes I have never used the anonymous label to savage any of my rivals. First, I wouldn't do that because I'm neither daft or nasty. Second, I set it up long before I had any interest in writing YA, or any idea that I would one day be a published writer.
(On the subject of Orlando Figes – could his attempt at anonymity have been any more useless? If you’re called Orlando and you work at Birkbeck College, then setting up an account labelled orlando-birkbeck is not really all that anonymous...unless the corridors of Birkbeck are packed with guys called Orlando, which I somehow doubt. I mean it hardly counts as anonymous at all)
I set my Amazon reviewer name anonymously because…well why wouldn’t I? That’s what most people do on the internet, whether they are reviewing on Amazon, commenting on the Guardian’s CiF site or strutting around the blogosphere.
And, since I’ve become a writer I haven’t changed it. I don’t often review on Amazon, and when I do it’s generally positive. If I love a YA book I review it under my own name on this blog, or on GoodReads. If I’m not so sure I tend to write a review which lists good and bad points. I’m happy to own my opinions, and come clean about my prejudices too. As with any review it’s only one view.
So, why review anonymously on Amazon? Well, very very rarely, I feel the urge to lay into a book. I feel ripped off by author, editor and other reviewers. I feel strongly annoyed that a book which started well descended into nonsense. I don’t think it deserved its great press.
So I post a one-star review which gives my reasons why. And I only want to do that anonymously, because I don’t want to make a great statement that might cause offence with publishers or writers. In general the comment I want to make boils down to this: you’re a well known writer, who’s enjoyed a lot of success and gets good reviews. But you and your editor have produced something that doesn’t deliver what it promised. I’m disappointed. Please don’t do it again.
Several times recently we’ve been to the cinema and been given a questionnaire to fill in at the end. I enjoyed giving feedback on The Ghost (zzzz) and Date Night (meh). I wish that books had a customer feedback questionnaire. Then I would probably give up posting the odd one star review on Amazon.
The whole question of anonymous reviewing and commenting is discussed in the Observer today. On the whole I’m against it – I agree with the journalist who says it unleashes ‘spite, envy, and hatred.’ I know bloggers who have been pestered by nasty anonymous commentators, and had to make hard choices about censorship. In principle I think that more should be done to stop anonymous reviewing and commenting. But I can’t quite give up the habit myself.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Mad Men - the sequel

A little bit of perfection came to an end last night, and Wednesday nights now have a bit fat hole in them.

The third series of Mad Men, the drama set in a 1960s New York advertising agency was outstanding because it took something that was already excellent and made it even better. Everything was great - the writing, the acting, the sets and the clothes..ah, the clothes. The clothes are so completely wonderful that I often have to freeze frame just to drink in the sheer fabulous detail of Betty’s gloves or Trudy’s frothy skirts.

The character development, three series in, is deep and satisfying and but equally important is the social and political commentary on the vast changes rumbling through Sixties America. So ice queen Betty Draper's growing discontent with her life as a housewife is also a subtle reflection of the nascent feminist movement.

I acquired my very own own character in series three, although I don’t know her name. The wife of the English executive sent from London to run the company spoke for anyone who’s ever been a trailing spouse when she described New York: “It’s not London. It’s not even England.”
She bridled when her husband suggested calling a taxi to take her home, because home meant England. And she lit up with joy when she heard that the company was going to be sold - because it meant going back to blighty. My husband couldn’t believe it. ‘it's you! Did you write this?’ he asked.

Most women I know are enthralled by Don Draper, whose many character flaws are mitigated by his unhappy and complicated background and his gorgeous face (mmm, see above. Played by the very talented Jon Hamm). Most men I know are captivated by the lovely Monroe-esque Joanie and dream of liberating her from her deeply unworthy husband.

Anyway, Mad Men series three is over and Mad Men series four is, for us Brits, just a distant speck on the horizon. So today my agent, a fellow Mad Men fanatic, and I have been dreaming up a follow up series, set in the 1980s centred on lovely lisping Sally (or Thally), daughter of Don and Betty.

My predictions go like this:

Don - has a new young wife and triplets. Still philandering on the side. Exhausted.
Betty - gets into feminism in the 70s. Flirts with lesbianism, but by the 80s is a right -wing columnist. Dynamic and scary.
Joan running the business, brilliantly. Divorced three times. No kids but very rich.
Peggy and Pete finally get together and are reunited with their adopted son. Unhappiness all round.
Sally - adorable basket case. Anorexic.
Bobby - artistic loser.
Gene - serial killer.

Any other Mad Men fans like to join in?

Friday, 9 April 2010

This and That..

A few things...

- American and Canadian book bloggers! If you'd like a copy of When I Was Joe in advance of the US publication date (September 2010) then let me know ( and I will alert my American publicist (I love that phrase. Let me say it again. My American publicist.)
- Once I hit 100 followers I'll have some sort of a give-away competition. Have to think what it will be, but there'll be a signed copy of Joe in it for you..I just need five more followers. So, spread the word.
- I was interviewed today in the Jewish Chronicle (I started work at the JC in 1981 as a teenage messenger girl, so this was a weird moment.) Anyway, I should like to make it clear that two years ago my children were aged 11 and 8 and could only be described as 'young' in comparison to, say, the interviewer.
- Two YA books to recommend - Delphine de Vigen's No & Me,a French bestseller translated into English. Lou, 13 is bright and socially awkward, promoted into a class of 15-year-olds. Her parents are still grieving the loss of her baby sister, and her mother is distant and depressed. Lou's friendships with homeless No and classmate Lucas whose parents have all but abandoned him, change her and change her family - but how much healing is possible? This book starts slowly, but gradually you get drawn into Lou's world. It reminded me of Meg Rosoff's brilliant The Way We Live Now. Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles - I'm only halfway through this sizzling Romeo and Juliet-like tale set in Chicago, but phwoar, cor, it is honest, great fun and has a serious side too about the pressure that teens are under - in Alex's Mexicano world to be part of a drug-dealing gang, in middle-class Brittany's to be perfect. I'm reading very slowly, because I'm enjoying it so much, and I can't wait to read everything that Elkeles has written.
UPDATE: Well...that'll teach me to post a review of something I haven't finished. Perfect Chemistry's ending didn't work for me at all. An uneasy mix of sleaze and sentimentality, the surprise twist was no surprise at all and Brittany's disabled sister was treated a bit like a pet dog. I'll still give Elkeles another try though, because the beginning was great.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Books for all Ages

‘This is definitely a novel for 14+ and not younger.’ One eminent reviewer’s verdict on When I Was Joe. Another, no less eminent, recommends it for 11 plus. What, I wonder, led them to their different conclusions.
The various arguments about age-banding are well rehearsed, and in general I’m against labelling - as I've written before. Children are well able to decide for themselves what is appropriate, I think, and reading is a pretty safe occupation.
However, I was talking to a primary school teacher this week who disagreed. Take
Jacqueline Wilson, she said. All of her books look as though they’re aimed at the same 8-12audience, but some are not. If 10 year olds read books about sex and pregnancy it can create an inappropriate atmosphere among primary age children.
I found it hard to argue with this. I have had the same problem with Jacqueline Wilson myself. I think she is a stunning writer – The Cat Mummy in particular is an extraordinary book about bereavement - but the branding of her books, the bright colours, the Nick Sharrett illustrations, can fail to sufficiently differentiate between the books for younger and older children.
When my daughter was about 9 we inadvertently bought her one of the ‘older’ Jacqueline Wilsons, and the content was too old and too dark for her. She realised this herself, but the publishers could have done a lot more to make it obvious. It wasn’t so much the worry about what I’d exposed my daughter to that bothered me, it was the money I’d spent on a book that was not meant for her - we were living in the Netherlands and English-language books were extremely expensive (Sadly the fabulous Book Depository had not yet been invented). And she was disappointed too, that a book by her favourite author was not the treat she’d expected.
Our feelings about which books are suitable for which age come from our assumptions about the children we know, I suspect. The teacher I was talking to teaches in a surburban faith school. When I was invited to speak to Y6 children at a local primary I suggested that perhaps the book was not suitable for their age group. 'Don't worry about it,' I was told, 'There's not a lot that our kids don't know about.' But still, I avoided reading from the book, and told them about it in more general terms. Was I over-protective? Maybe, but I'd have felt uncomfortable doing otherwise.
I’d like to suggest a change to the age-banding debate. Label books ‘Infant’ ‘Junior’ and ‘Secondary’, to show which school classrooms they’re meant for. Limit sex, violence and swearing in the Infant and Junior selections.
Encourage bookshops and libraries to have separate sections for ‘Secondary’ level books, so they aren’t right next to the picture books and lanky teens aren’t having to wade through hyperactive toddlers to find books they might want to read. See Young Adult books as an introduction to adult fiction, instead of a progression from children’s. In fact, many YA books could be smartly marketed to 20 and 30-somethings rather more successfully than to 11 and 12 year olds.
When I wrote When I Was Joe I rather innocently assumed that as I was writing about a 14 year old, I’d be read by 14 year olds. So the first reviewer, who saw it as a book for 14 plus, was correct in a way, as that’s how it was written. On the other hand I’ve had some great responses from younger readers who don’t seem to have had any problem with its content or style. So, why not encourage them to read it too?
I’ve been very privileged in the last few weeks to gain some insight into reluctant readers, taking part in a volunteer programme to help 12-year-olds who have fallen behind with their reading. The two boys I help have shown me the impossibility of labelling a child with a ‘reading age’. You can read aloud one way, read to yourself another. You can be capable of understanding one book, while another remains incomprehensible. One week you're stumbling over a picture book.The next you feel confident to tackle something much more complicated. One of my reluctant readers picked a book to read which the librarian said was one of the most complicated in the library (Penalty by Mal Peet) He can read it, understand it and, most importantly, enjoy it.
Reading is a deeply personal act, and the best way to encourage it is to offer a wide selection of books and a broad way of experiencing them – audio books, reading in silence, discussing books, having a book read to you. And everyone with an interest in getting children reading: writers, publishers, reviewers, teachers, librarians, booksellers and parents have to grapple with the knowledge that one 11-year- old reader is not the same as every other one.