Book Review: Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood

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I had been looking forward to this book all year having pre-ordered it on Amazon what seems like ages ago.

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The story follows the struggles of Podkin (a rabbit), his sister Paz and baby brother Pook as they flee into the snowy woods after the evil Gorm – mentally twisted, blood-thirsty, iron-clad rabbits – have overrun their warren and killed their father, the chief.
The story is told by a wandering bard on Bramblemass Eve to a clutch of entranced young rabbits. We cut from the tale every now and then to remind us of how the story is being told and for the bard to field questions from the young rabbits.
It opens really well. Atmospheric and engaging as the bard trudges through the snow to the burrow.
The Gorm are tracking Podkin as he has a fabled dagger that can cut anything other than iron. As they flee, Pod, Paz and Pook find friends and foes as they try to keep one step ahead of the Gorm.
I enjoyed the story very much but did find a number of aspects rather odd (spoilers imminent!). The story is entitled ‘Podkin One-Ear’ so I sort of assumed that the loss of his ear would be of some significance in the story. Nope. He loses it very early on, trapped under a portcullis fleeing a warren. Pretty unlucky but of no other importance. I then wondered if it would ‘mark’ him in some fashion, make him easier for the Gorm to find… nope. No one is searching for a rabbit with one ear. I then wondered if it would have some significance in the final scenes of the book. Nope.
The book ends well all the same. There’s a little twist, which I won’t spoil here, in a satisfying ending. Although very few in number, there are some wonderful double-page illustrations at key stages in the book. Personally, I would have happily seen more of those.
I’ve seen that other reviewers compare it to Watership Down. Other than the characters being rabbits, I don’t really follow the comparison at all. It’s a good book in its own right. Kids will enjoy the relationship between the three rabbits and the characters they meet along the way. It’s action packed and a sequel seems assured.

The Gorm are not yet defeated…

Rating out of 5: ♦♦♦♦

Suggested age: 7 -10

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My first writing conference! – SCBWI Con 2016

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So, what did I think of my first ever writing conference?

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OMG!

I can’t believe I’ve never been before! I’ve been on tons of writing courses with lots of different people at lots of different stages in their writing journey. It’s always really fantastic to spend time with people who love writing like I do. What was different is the fact that the conference is over a weekend so there’s more socialising and everyone there (including me, of course!) are passionate about children’s books.

The conference was well attended with authors, agents and people who are there to help you get published. You can book a one-to-one with an agent to get feedback on a idea you’re working on, things like that.

While there was still a good breadth of interests from picture books to YA as well as many illustrators, everyone is close enough in their interests to engage well together and enthuse about what they love doing. It’s not quite the same when you’re with someone who writes chick lit, or horror. They have slightly different agendas.

There were key note speeches from highly respected and experienced authors, illustrators, agents and editors each with important messages to pass on. There was a wide variety of groups and sessions that catered for all aspects of children’s writing, illustration and marketing yourself.

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A lot of what I heard in key note speeches and group sessions wasn’t new but, for some reason, this time round for me it really sank in. I found myself scribbling away in Cliff NcNish’s Heroes and Villains groups fleshing out a couple of chapter sketches for stories I am working on and finding a new clarity in my planning. Something has finally fallen into place (I think!). I have wondered since why that is? Perhaps Cliff is a literary genius whose passion (he’s an engaging, funny chap) and thought processes have rubbed off on me? Or perhaps his approach and thought process reflects how my own mind works? Maybe it’s that this weekend has caught me at the right time in my own development curve as a writer? Who knows!? Frankly, I don’t care. I really feel as if this weekend has launched me forward as a writer. It’s given me a turbo boost that I hope will propel me into 2017 and beyond.

I met loads of fantastic people, felt honoured to be discussing writing techniques and actually developing stories with traditionally published authors who I hold in high regard. I was in awe of those, who, on Saturday afternoon, had the guts to get up on stage in front of 200-300 people and pitch their books to a panel of four literary agents akin to Dragons Den. That is gut-liquefying stuff right there. Not just the getting up and speaking part but handling the irritating little voice inside that was, most likely, taunting each and every one of them – Ha ha, you’re making a fool of yourself, you can’t write! Your stuff is rubbish! All five of them are legends in my eyes, all of them writers.

I met a chap there called Patrick. He is just starting out with his writing journey and he has begun in just the right way. I encourage anyone embarking on a life of writing to throw themselves into a conference. I wish I had done so years ago. You will meet people who will inspire you, point you in the right direction and you will see many others who have toiled away at their laptops and sketch pads for years and have succeeded, just like you will if you get involved with others looking to achieve the same things.

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But I won’t know anyone there, you say? That may be true before but I promise you it will change by the time you leave… and you’ll want to go back. You can even dress up!

What more can you ask for?

Book Review – Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce

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I became aware of Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce at a recent Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) writing group and thought I’d give it a try. Wow! I’m glad that I did. What a fabulous book.

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The story is a very endearing tale of what happens when an autistic boy is the unwitting recipient of a bag full of cash hurled off a train into his den in his back garden (he calls his den a ‘Hermitage’ though). The boy, Damian, knows everything about saints, regurgitating facts about them in school, at home and everywhere else. When the bag of cash lands he thinks it’s a gift from God and sets out to spend it on the poor and other meaningful causes. The only problem is that people start to ask questions and time is running out for Damian and his older brother, Anthony because the cash is in British pounds and the country is just days away from switching to Euros. If they don’t spend the cash before the switch, it will be worthless.

The writing is very accomplished and very funny. Damian’s view of the world and how people react to him is seen through his autism. He’s very black and white in how he interacts with people, taking a literal stance on issues with his autism robbing him (or is it sparing him…?) of the true realities and nuances. This has been deftly employed by Boyce to create humour and an endearing quality to Damian’s character.

Who threw the cash from the train? Will they come back for it? How do Damian and Anthony rationalise trying to spend tens of thousands of pounds of stolen money? This is a engaging moral dilemma that Damian deals with effortlessly!

I highly recommend this to anyone, child or adult. I will definitely be looking out for more books by Boyce. The fact that this book is now to be a major motion picture, is no surprise to me at all.

Rating out of 5: ♦♦♦♦♦

Suggested age: 8 -12

Book Review – Cogheart by Peter Bunzl

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What a cracking debut. Anything starting on an airship is going to hook me right from the start! I love steampunk.

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After the explosive prologue, where Lily’s father’s airship is shot down and he’s feared lost, we meet Lily at school showing her feisty character and protecting the mechanical maid who the other girls treat appallingly. We get a feel for her as a character very quickly and soon the reader is immersed in a world of ‘mechanicals’ and ‘mechanimals’ many of whom were designed and built by Lily’s late father. Lily is desperate to find any news of him, refusing to accept that he is dead. Meanwhile, she and her human sidekick, Robert and her mechanical fox, Malkin set out to find answers and to discover the lengths that their unknown nemesis will go to to possess the Cogheart.
I listened to this on audio and thoroughly enjoyed it. Peter Bunzl has created a wonderful world of aeronauts, airships and villainy. Okay, the discovery of who the bad guy is was no surprise at all (it was pretty obvious from the start) but children probably won’t spot the early hint and will love the world building, action and the fabulous Lily who is a truly wonderful character. Highly recommended and an impressive debut.

Rating out of 5: ♦♦♦♦♦

Suggested age: 7 -12

The joys of proof reading

So, my new book The Mad Moon Mission has just had it’s first proof read. This is the first time I have ever had a book go through this ‘full’ publishing process – structural edits, re-writes, copy edit, typesetting, proof reading, etc. I originally thought that the book should be pretty perfect by the proof read stage.

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Wrong!

Not only do I have a fair few text issues to review but I discovered that seven of the one hundred and fifty drawings were wrong!  Schoolboy errors too. Two characters change what they are wearing part way through the story but the drawings didn’t change with them and now need re-doing. Massive drama? No, not really – Curt Walstead (the illustrator), as always, has been great and will do the revisions in super-quick time but it really does reinforce the importance of going through the process. Both Curt and I checked the drawings carefully and noted a number that needed alteration but we both missed this one.

So, I’ve added to this post a drawing from the book that will now never be used. Let Mr Finny’s ‘stormy face’ serve as a reminder of how you may feel later, after your book is published and you only then discover a typo or a continuity error!

You have been warned…

Want to innovate and invent? Read Sci-fi!

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In a really fantastic speech about the need to read, Neil Gaiman (among a great many other things) says this: –

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I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Yes! I knew there was a good reason for reading Sci-fi! It’s so true, though. Look at the number of things we have these days that you first saw in the original series of Star Trek! Okay, clever clogs, we don’t have warp drive but we do have tricorders – things that scan you and take your blood pressure, etc – and communicators – mobile phones. If you don’t believe me, read this article on ScienceFocus.com.

The wider lesson though – to read and the benefits of doing so – are eloquently expounded by the Great Gaiman and I encourage anyone with children or an interest in reading (and preserving libraries) to read the excellent article on the Guardian website – HERE.

As can be seen from other posts of mine, I am passionate about getting children to read. Incidentally, your children can’t go wrong with a bit of Gaiman… Coraline and Stardust are my favourites.

Finding inspiration!

So the agent at the talk you just went to, or in the blog post you’ve just read, says that they are looking for something new, something fresh, someone with a unique voice. But how do you find that killer concept with a unique voice?

Do you –

  • Assume that you have none of these attributes and give up?
  • Try to think of the wildest, weirdest story you can possibly imagine and begin scribbling?
  • Look around at what’s popular at the moment and give it a twist?

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You never know if an agent will think that you have a unique voice or a story that ‘fits’ their list, etc. I’m a great believer in writing what you like to write and drawing from your own knowledge, skills and experiences to add authenticity to your writing. I suppose this mirrors the age-old advice to ‘write what you know’. Contriving something that you think will appeal to agents or publishers rather than something you are actually passionate about, I suspect, will have much less chance of success. When the chances are already small, I think such an approach is unwise.

I find inspiration in a great many places. Recently, I’ve been thinking back to my childhood and trying to remember how I thought at the time and how my world view has changed. I’ve reminded myself of a period in my life when I I had to lean over the side of the bed to check there were no monsters underneath before I could get to sleep – this behaviour shows immense courage in the young Andrew you’ll notice. Had there been monsters under my bed I could have been savagely attacked! There’s a story right there. It might not be hugely original but it’s a spark that you can kindle. Could I hear them scratching? Whispering? What if there was a portal under my bed to a land of fairies and other wee beasties? What did they want with me? Ask yourself these ‘what if?’ questions and move on from there.

I also recalled a road traffic accident I was involved in with my late grandfather. Apparently, no one else in my family has any knowledge of this accident happening! How could that be? Did I dream it? What if my grandfather had kept it a secret? If so, why? – assume for the purposes of this post that the there isn’t the simple answer of avoiding getting into trouble with my mother – Might he have been a secret agent? My grandfather used to mend old televisions. What if, one day, he had received a message from a crackly voice via a set that was supposed to be broken? Was he acting upon the message when the accident happened?

Keep doing this and you’ll build up a number of ideas. Put them aside. Forget about them. Pick them up again a week or two later and see which one grabs your attention and ignites your imagination. Write that one. Pour your soul, your sweat and your tears into it and then send it out.

See what happens.

 

Getting ready for launch with Troubador Publishing

Getting ready for a book launch starts many months in advance.

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My new book, The Mad Moon Mission is being published by Matador on 28th January 2017. I already have the Press Release and Advance Information that will be sent out in the weeks to come to advertise the book.

The book itself is still being typeset (pictures inserted and the pages aligned, etc), following which it will go through the proof-reading stage (to iron-out any remaining typos, plot holes, etc) and then it can go to the printers!

I must say, I am more excited at the thought of holding an actual copy of this second book than I was with the first, The Crazy Christmas Caper. I did everything for that book. The writing (obviously!), the typesetting, conversion for the Kindle E-book, uploading to Amazon, sourcing printers, etc. This time round the wizards at Troubador Publishing Ltd (of which Matador is one of their imprints) have taken all of this off my hands… save for the writing bit!

Okay, it costs money but Troubador allow you to mix and match their services. You decide what services you want based upon what you think you need and what you can afford. I feel part of a far more professional approach to this second book which, I suspect, is where my excitement comes from.

I certainly recommend using Troubador to help you produce the best book that you can. My only regret is that I didn’t use them for the first book too!

Book Review – Fablehaven by Brandon Mull

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In my desire to read as widely as possible in the genre, I grabbed this. It’s been a successful series which now runs to five books, this being the first.

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I ended up liking the story though I almost lost my way at the start. Seth and Kendra are shipped off to their estranged grandparents when their own mother and father go on a cruise. They discover that their grandparents are caretakers of Fablehaven, a sanctuary for magical creatures and the home of a secret and important magical artifact.

To start with, the story has little if any direction. The children explore Fablehaven, discovering things and getting themselves into trouble as they predictably do almost everything that they are told not to by their grandfather. It’s only much later in the book that potential (and then actual) conflict appears as they begin to learn about the Society of the Evening Star and an ancient demon is unleashed.

It’s well written, the setting is indeed magical and the story is best appreciated for the pictures it paints in your mind than it is for the actual story arc which, as I say, appears rather late on in the tale. If you like fairies, satyr’s, golems. witches and demons, this book is for you! In some ways, it very much reminded me of the Spiderwick Chronicles.

I’m guessing that the next four books will have very much less preamble and will get on with developing the main conflict in the story and unveiling more secrets about Fablehaven. I’m looking forward to that and will definitely be grabbing the next installment!

Rating out of 5: ♦♦♦♦

Suggested age: 5 -12 (younger ages, 5-8, will most likely need it read to them)

The Dream Snatcher by Abi Elphinstone

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I have read many reviews of this book offering high praise and thought it was about time I read it too. I’m glad I did.

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The Dream Snatcher tells the story of an orphaned gypsy girl called Moll who lives among other gypsies in a mysterious forest. Skull, an evil witchdoctor in the camp across the river, wants Moll dead. She embarks on a quest to find lost talismans that can help her defeat Skull’s evil plans.

As the tale moves, Moll finds out more and more about her lost parents. The writing is enchanting and the relationships Moll has with her best friend, Siddy, the dubious Alfie and her wild cat, Griff are well rounded and engaging. The imagery in the book(dark forest, ancient riddles, voodoo, etc) together with the fiery, determined and endearing nature of Moll, make this a wonderful book for children. At it’s heart it is a story about good against evil that children will love and understand.

It might be a little scary at times for younger ones. Skull does want Moll dead and the forest can be a dangerous place and Skull is a truly menacing antagonist. But kids love that sort of thing too and I don’t think it’s overdone.

The story has a fairy tale feel to it and an electric pace that just keeps the pages turning. I particularly liked the subliminal message that gypsies are the good guys.  It’s about time that commonly held prejudices against travellers are excised from our psyche.

Highly recommended.

Rating out of 5: ♦♦♦♦♦

Suggested age: 8 -12