Sunday, 29 January 2012

If you enjoyed When I Was Joe...

A few weeks ago I wrote a little list of book recommendations for readers who'd enjoyed When I Was Joe and Almost True and wanted something to read during the seven-month (sorry) wait for Another Life.
Here are some more books that might appeal.
If you liked reading about an ordinary boy with big problems - try Fifteen Days without a Head by Dave Cousins. Laurence's mum has a drink problem and has gone missing - but Laurence and his little brother can't tell anyone. Their story is funny, unexpected and heart-breaking -  and really makes you think about what should happen in families where the parents aren't coping. By the end I was all set to call the social workers myself...except that's not the solution that Dave wrote. 
If you're into grappling with thorny moral issues, read Katie Dale's Someone Else's Life (which, by the way has the most gorgeous cover).  Rosie's mum has died of Huntingdon's disease, and she must decide whether to find out if she carries the disease herself -  a devastating diagnosis if positive. But then Rosie discovers long-buried secrets which destroy everything she ever believed to be true. I've rarely read a book which gets you so involved in the lives of the characters -  at times I'd have cheerfully throttled all of them, including Rosie's lovely Gran - or which twists and turns so fast and furiously. The dilemmas faced by Rosie and others -  I don't want to give anything away -  are so huge, that you're left pondering them for ages afterwards.
If you're a fan of psychological thrillers -  and especially if you liked the ghost/hallucination aspect of Almost True, not to mention the unreliable narrator of both Joe books -  then Cat Clarke's Torn is a must-read. It starts off a bit Pretty Little Liars-ish with a motley crew of girls sharing a cabin in the wilderness, then things go seriously wrong when Alice, Cass, Polly and Rae decide to teach popular but bitchy Tara a lesson. Torn is scary, believable and utterly compelling and Cat is completely brilliant at getting inside the head of a teenage girl who lets insecurity and low self esteem lead her to disaster.

Monday, 23 January 2012

New look

Coming your way in September...
  I'm getting a new look! Or at least my books are. To coincide with the release of Another Life, in September, the first two books in the series, When I Was Joe and Almost True are getting new covers to match.

The Egg of Death in Danny's fridge

Ty/Joe's brown/green eyes...
 The new look is bold, bright and eye-catching, the work of designer Arianna Osti, who also designed the cover for Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery. People have been asking me about the inspiration for the covers, so I put a few questions to Arianna.

  Tell us a bit about yourself and your career.

I was brought up with an artist in the family and a house full of books so it’s not surprising I chose a creative career.
After graduating from Camberwell College of Arts and training in a few design studios I started working at Frances Lincoln Publishers. I have always been interested in print design and I have a passion for typography so publishing feels like the perfect industry for me to be in.

What was the process of planning the new jackets? Did you have a completely free hand, or was there a discussion first about which direction to take? (NB The first I heard of the new covers was when they were all done and finished and my editor said 'I've got a surprise for you!')

In designing book covers there is usually a preliminary meeting with the Sales team to discuss the feel and the audience of a book. This is where we thought that, as we had a third book in the same series as When I Was Joe and Almost True, it would be good to launch the third title, Another Life, with a brand new look, re-jacketing the previous titles to boost the series. After the success of the cover
of Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery we thought it would be good to stick to a simple but bold cover style. So the direction to pursue was that of a striking graphic and typographic cover.

Did you come up with other ideas and then reject them?

I did come up with a few different ideas.
Ibarajo Road -  out August 2012
and sounds brilliant
It is quite unusual that the first design idea for a cover ends up being the final cover. It can happen, and it did happen for example with Ibarajo Road. However, generally you tend to come up with a few different ideas and then through discussions and meetings some of the ideas get rejected or approved. Some of the ideas I had seemed to work better on some titles rather than others, so they did get rejected, as the same design had to be applied to all three books in order for them to work as a series.

   How did you pick the colours?

The colours were partly dictated by the plot and by the graphic elements (eye, egg and knife) used on each of the books. The background colour came later, first it was Joe’s brown eyes, then the yellow of the egg yolk and the red of the bloody knife – all significant parts of the books. These were the obvious, realistic colours so for the background colours I had to try a combination that would work for each cover and then as a series of three.
The colours are there to create a mood and to help communicate the feel of the book so muted colours seemed to work best for a dark, edgy thriller series.

Saul Bass design
Someone mentioned the iconic cover for Catch-22 was that an inspiration? Others mentioned 1950s film posters and pulp fiction paperbacks. What were your influences?

I’m not sure the cover for Catch-22 ‘caught’ my eye as much as Saul Bass’ work.
Saul Bass again
He was a graphic-designer and filmmaker best know for his title sequences and film posters – so yes, in that respect 1950s film posters and typefaces have been an influence. I was also inspired by Agatha Christie’s paperback covers with hand-lettered type for the author’s name. But Saul Bass’ use of type and his concise, powerful and clever illustrations influenced me to create covers with strong type and

Iconic byline
a simple graphic icon. 

Saul Bass poster -
I love this film
You also designed the cover for Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery. What was the thinking behind that one?

It’s a sharp, sassy fiction story that deals with girls and the problems arising after winning the lottery – including the art of shopping. So we wanted something bold and striking, but feminine and sophisticated. While thinking about shopping, The Devil Wears Prada came to mind – that was the starting point. Immediately the red stiletto shoe communicates power, sex and elegance. Then the type says girlie, light-hearted and funny.
Power, sex and elegance!

 How much do you think about the target audience when planning covers?

The target audience is very important while designing covers as you have to communicate to the right people. It’s really the first thing to think about as you have to try and get into the mind of an 8 year-old, a 12 year-old or a 16 year-old.
I’ve been designing books for the adult market as well but the children’s audience is certainly more challenging.

What other covers (by you and other people) are your favourites?

Designed by David Pearson
I am very pleased with the poetry fiction covers I have designed for Janetta Otter-Barry Books such as An Imaginary Menagerie, The Language of Cat, Hey Little Bug and Come Into this Poem.
I am always looking at the competition, at other designer’s work and it’s always good to get inspiration from the masters of the past. My favourite book cover designs are by Gray318 (especially the Jonathan Safran Foer books) and David Pearson.
Designed by Gray318
(You can contact Arianna at

Saturday, 7 January 2012

How to respond to bad reviews.

Ignore them. It's as easy as that. But, funnily enough, not everyone does.
Julie Halpern is a writer of YA books. I'd never heard of her before this week, when a blogging, twittering storm blew up because she wrote a foot-stamping, tantrumy, Violet Elizabath Bott of a response to a negative review that she found on the internet.
Ms Halpern has now taken down her post, and the equally cringe-worthy 'poor little me' ones that followed. But you can read the original review here and the responses were all about how the author had poured her heart and sould and time into her work, while the blogger had just dashed off a piece of snark, and the author was in a higher place than the reviewer and no one should write negative reviews at all, because it might but readers off, and authors have feeling too, and google should create a negative review filter (I think she was employing hyperbole at some points, but the general hysterical nature of the thing made it hard to tell).
It's blindingly obvious to most of  us, I hope, that  if an author thinks a review is unfair, offensive, wrong, sloppy or whatever, she should not take it personally, and should absolutely not attack the reviewer in public. Find someone to moan to who knows you are not an egotisical brat -  or who knows that you are an egotisical brat, but loves you anyway.
If you absolutely have to contact the reviewer, be humble. Thank her for spending time reading and reviewing your books, point out nicely that she's got the main character's name wrong, or misunderstood the central metaphor, or given a whacking great spoiler, say how much her good opinion matters to you.  But truly  it's best to maintain a certain authorly distance at these painful moments.
A lot of people have told Ms Halpern this, and maybe she will now spend a lifetime lying awake in darkened rooms asking herself why...why....?
But I have a further criticism of her rant.
The reviewer didn't like her fake kidnap plotline - ('Can I just say – uhhh. The entire Penny debacle was kinda ridiculous.') Ms Halpern was shocked that anyone could doubt the premise because it had actually happened to a friend of hers  ('Ugh! I didn't make it up, beyotch! I had a friend who faked her own kidnapping! Grrrr.').
I've heard this defence before. I asked a writer about the baffling relationship of two people in her otherwise delightful book, and why on earth they didn't divorce -  to be told that they were based on two people she actually knew and were therefore, well, true to life.  I felt short-changed, and was none the wiser. A tiny hint at sexual obsession or financial complexity would have worked far better,
Writers, it is not enough to base your characters and plots on real life and real people. You have to make them plausible to your reader.They are reading a work of fiction, not a memoir or a piece of journalism.
Quite often I've had things happen to me that I regretfully realise would not work in a piece of fiction, because the coincidence is too unlikely or the story is almost too neat. It's fine to use real life events and people as inspiration, but it's not a justification or a defence when people don't believe it.
Early on, I had a review for When I Was Joe which doubted that anything so extreme could happen in the UK ('From the onset it is particularly difficult to accept that the initial event really justifies the extreme of witness protection and this makes the attempt to create a sense of urgency and danger rather tenuous.')  and went on to criticise the characters as obnoxious and unlikeable. For that reader, I'd failed to make the situation feel believable and I hadn't managed to connect wth their emotions either. That was my failing. Their opinion was perfectly valid. Luckily, not many other readers seem to feel the same way, but I try to take the view that I can learn as much, if not more, from negative reviews than from positive ones.
Not that I like them, of course.  Bring on that negative review Google filter.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The murder of Stephen Lawrence

When I worked on the newsdesk at The Independent I dealt with dozens of reports every day. It's difficult to pick out individual stories, nearly twenty years later. The murder of Stephen Lawrence is an exception.

I was working an afternoon shift, and the environment correspondent, Nick Schoon came up to talk to me. 'I've got a story for you,' he said, 'and it's a bit unusual. It's a crime story.' The story he outlined was terribly sad. A teenager, stabbed to death on a London street. Racist motivation suspected. It was the kind of story that I'd have thought of as suitable for a local rather than a national paper. It wasn't even that uncommon -  as Nick's report stated, this was the second racist murder in the area in a matter of weeks.

Nick was offering the story because Stephen's father Neville Lawrence had worked for him as a  plasterer and had rung him the night of Stephen's death, in tears, asking him to write about his son's murder. His death did not make the front page of any national paper, and  many did not run it at all. I asked Nick to write 400 words which I placed on page 4. This was his report.  I didn't expect to hear much about it again, perhaps a news-in-brief paragraph saying that someone had been charged and later convicted.  (Nick's memories of his report are here)

Well, I was wrong, and so was almost everyone else. The killing of Stephen Lawrence was described today by a senior police officer as 'one of the most significant cases of its time.'  Two of Stephen's killers were finally convicted today -  an extraordinary 18 years after his death. The Metropolitan Police's original  investigation into his death was appallingly incompetent. Neville and Doreen Lawrence never ceased in their battle for justice for their son, backed by another paper, the Daily Mail, whose editor, Paul Dacre had also, I believe, employed Stephen's father. Their efforts eventually led to a public inquiry which revealed the Met's institutionalised racism -  a racism that reached beyond the police and into wider society. The case changed the UK in many ways -  summarised here - but I believe that not enough has changed.

In his recent book, Out of the Ashes, David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, recalls telling the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown about mothers from his constituency, feeling helpless to stop their sons getting caught up in the violence. "What are we doing for these women?" he asked the Prime Minister.
"Tax credits," replied Brown.
Things haven't changed.  In the aftermath of this summer's riots (riots which overwhelmingly targetted property, not people), the current Prime Minister David Cameron pledged £1.25 million to fight gangs in London. As Lammy pointed out, that sum wouldn't buy a house in many London neighbourhoods.
The trial which has just ended was also notable for exposing the trauma of young people who witness murder. Stephen's friend Duwayne Brooks was quizzed about differences in his account in court and his original statement s to police. Mr Brooks -  now a councillor -  giving evidence just after the death of his father, explained that he had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after Stephen's murder.  From the BBC's court report:
Mr Brooks' original eyewitness statement was read back to him, and he was asked: "Did that actually happen?"
He replied: "I made a statement some months after when I began to remember other parts of the incident which for some reason I couldn't remember because it was too distressing, it was too scary to remember and it was very upsetting."
Stephen Lawrence and his family got some justice today, but the slaughter of young men on the streets of London goes on, and the vast majority are black. Of course, not all are killed in racist attacks, but  -  as Stephen's mother pointed out this afternoon -  some are. Others are victims of gang and random violence.

Stephen's family have set up a charity in his name which works for criminal and social justice: '
fostering positive community relationships, and enabling people to realise their potential.  Through creative methods the Trust addresses the causes of urban decay; youth disaffection and educational underachievement and supports young people by developing pathways into aspirational and sustainable employment.

I do believe that if white, middle-class teenagers were being killed on our streets at the same rate as poorer black children are, far more would be done about it. Supporting the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust is one place to start.