Perks of being a reader

Amongst all the debate about Kathleen Hale’s piece in the Guardian and the Goodreads reviewer allegedly* hit over the head with a bottle by an enraged author, I want to put my emphasis on the positive aspects of reading and reviewing.

*it is under police investigation at present

10 reasons to review – with examples

  1. Finding works and writers you never expected – Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage, China Mieville’s Railsea, Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne Trilogy, Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who …series
  2. Seeing  authors grow and change over time – Frances Hardinge, Chris Priestley, Celia Rees, Jonathan Stroud
  3. Developing relationships within the community – readers, writers, publicists, editors. Chutzpah pays off.  My experience so far has been overwhelmingly good. I love it when I tweet or comment and make someone’s day – or I get hold of a book I really wanted.
  4. Improving your understanding of the book market. I’ve much more idea of age-ranges, the style of different imprints and the likely readership than I had before.
  5. Matching the right book with the right reader. I cannot emphasise this enough. A reviewer’s purpose is to unite the people who like that-sort-of-thing with their preferred reading material. It’s not for me to judge – the thing’s been written. I know what love and care goes into the vast majority of writing for young people that I read – what earthly good could come of me slagging it off?
  6. Investigating good and sometimes great writing. How does it work? What can I steal?  [ Please don’t take that too literally] Even with works that really aren’t my thing, I have learned a lot by thinking about why.
  7. Inspiring me to write. We’re all ‘just adding pebbles to the cairn’ as Maeve Binchy put it so beautifully. Not rivals – fellow creators.
  8. Receiving books for free – how wonderful is that? If I can bear to, I pass appropriate ones to my local library – doubly pleasing.
  9. Occasionally getting books well before they come out. I feel so honoured when that happens. Hint hint publishers!
  10. Pleasure.


I mostly write for Serendipity Reviews and occasionally for Fantasy Book Review. I read the whole book – or I don’t review it. Why not join me?


What you should read – if you fancy it

A shameless variation on Janet Potter’s great idea found here.


Are you stuck for an idea?

Do your settings lack oomph?

Could your characters do with a fillip?
Still using the same old phrases?

the solution is at hand…

Semmelweis – as a boy in 1830.

The best answer I know is in reading:

  • Read the books from the charity shop that have been scribbled in.
  • Read the artists’ statements beside weird stuff you love and don’t know why. Some are voiced with pretentious twaddle – others with magic.
  • Read old guide books to places you can never go.
  • Read tacky tourist maps – especially the badly translated. Follow trails and Blue Plaques. Those noticeboards that pigeons crap on.
  • Read ghost advertisements on the sides of brick walls. The nicknames of old streets. Half torn down posters. House names and pub signs.ghost-sign
  • Read biographies and newspaper announcements – hatches, matches and dispatches. Gravestones and alabaster monuments. Church leaflets and the lists of vicars, bellringers and flower rotas. Notices outside synagogues, mosques, and temples. Amazing names throng places of worship.
  • Read entries in historical directories for your town. Two Yeast Importers and three Tripe Dressers in Scarborough 1890 – who knew?
  • Read the handwritten ads on the shoe-shop window. Enjoy the rAnDom capital’s and folk punctuation.
  • Read pulp fiction and poetry, textbooks and travel writing. Steal unashamedly. Not just fragments of people, and glimpses of places but turns of phrase. And with novels – nick dirty great chunks of plot. If JMW Turner chose to copy Claude and many others to learn – why shouldn’t you?
  • Read magazines about interests that aren’t yours. Enquire within
  • Read vintage catalogues and recipe books, Shell Guides,  Enquire Within and tatty old National Geographics.
  • Read without shame – comics and battered Readers Digests, lurid trashy paperbacks that predate you, high-minded difficult stuff you ‘ought’ to have read before, things your friends hate.
  • Read again collections of fairy stories and folktales. Seek out urban myths and ‘true’ ghost stories.
  • Read Old Bailey trial reports and yellowy newspaper cuttings found as bookmarks.
  • Read anything and everything. Question it all.A girl reads a newspaper painted by Georgios Jakobides c.1882What would you add to my list?

Shake out those shelves

Of course you want more book suggestions to feed your habit…


You want a courageous heroine – here’s a baker’s dozen of them:

  • The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – get two for the price of one – Bonnie and Sylvia.
  • My Name is Mina – Mina is imaginative, fragile and full of creative courage.
  • Jane Eyre – “I am a free human being with an independent will.” Enough said.
  • Chantress – Lucy, who finds her own voice in the midst of upheaval. A remarkable story full of the truth of creativity.
  • Matilda -“I’m wondering what to read next.” Matilda said. “I’ve finished all the children’s books.” Roald Dahl at his best.
  • The Ransom of Dond – Darra shows the courage of love in a beautiful myth.
  • Coraline – for goodness’ sake, read the book. She did not need a male sidekick to face the Other Mother.
  • A Face like Glass – Neverfell,  with her honesty and her expressions take on Caverna. A marvellous fantasy, with depth – and cheese.
  • The Visitors – deafblind Adeliza Golding is no Victorian victim!
  • The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland – Once you’ve met September, it’s hard to forget her.
  • Charlotte’s Web – I never thought I could love a spider.
  • The Book Thief –  ah lovely Liesel, naughty and curious and so alive.


Escape to the country?

Each of these is so evocative of the place you will either want to dash there immediately – or avoid it like a sink-hole.


Some more thoughts on The 100-book Challenge.

Don't panic They're only Vogons -by Bob Jonkman CC

Of course, I reserve the right to alter, update and generally mess around with my own list. Inevitably, I found dreadful omissions – and I have reconsidered putting other forms of writing in. Surely they deserve their own list?

The most interesting thing for me was seeing the connections and clusters of influences on my own writing – sparkling like dewdrops on a cobweb. None of that will make sense to you, Dear Reader, if I do not spell out what I see as the highlights. A heap of books is quite interesting in itself – but how much more so if someone enthuses with joy and detail.

So here goes.

The first book leads me to a facet I admire in other writers – but haven’t even attempted – humour. Douglas Adams’ Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had such unexpected comedy – it was a new and startling thing. Could you do that in Science Fiction? It appeared you could. The vigour of it all is something I aspire to – and the joyous use of words.  Such characters ! Who can forget Slartibartfast and the coast of Norway, Marvin the Paranoid Android – or Vogon Poetry?

In this batch, I’m going to include the anarchic and bitter Catch-22 by Joseph Heller , Henry Tumour by Anthony McGowan, and The Radleys by Matt Haig. They all deal with dark and important things – without being po-faced. Any book that can make me laugh and cry has to be good.

Some where close by, I’d have to stack Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – replete with Starkadders, sukebind, and Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless the cows. There’d have to be The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster – with the Jules Fieffer illustrations too. I love the ridiculous puns and have a very soft spot for the likes of Tock the Watch-dog Faintly Macabre, the not-so Wicked Which and The Mathemagician – and there’s a proper story .

Tock the Watch Dog

Richard Adams’ Watership Down comes next. I had to have this for three main reasons: it’s a saga, there’s a deep sense of landscape and there are animals that aren’t twee. I shall focus on the latter.

I am not a vegetarian – but I have thought hard about it. Generally, I don’t eat meat that I don’t know the provenance of – I buy organic or free range  or do without. Part of this is down to such reading. Almost anything by Dick King-Smith delights me – but The Sheep-Pig just tops the list.  I foolishly omitted Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty [guaranteed to make me weep buckets ] and Lloyd Alexander’s Book of Three where we meet Hen Wen the Oracular Pig for the first time from my original list. Mea culpa.

Good animal writing is tricky to pull off – but I’d have to say I still get great pleasure from Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories [not to mention the wonderful, unpatronising language]. The valiant Reepicheep  made ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ just reach the top of my C.S.Lewis pile. [It has to have the original Pauline Baynes illustrations, of course.]

Reepicheep by Pauline Baynes

Third on the alphabetical list came Joan Aiken and I picked The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Two things I particularly cherish in it – alternate history (I read it late and had not known that you could do such a thing) and Winter. The use of a different ‘trouser leg of time’ [T. Pratchett, The Night Watch] leads to such wonders as much of Sir Terry’s work, and the haunting if flawed Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell by Susanna Clarke.

Ah but Winter! How that speaks to my Yorkshire soul. Three books I left out feature glorious evocations of snow: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg and Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. All of these took me to crisply shown worlds and looked at them through strange and unsettling angles.

I’d have to have Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights as part of this Venn diagram – Serafina Pekkala, Iorek Byrnison, and Svalbard all inhabit my Winter imagination. So indeed does the White Witch but I can’t have another Narnia – but I will garner both The Box of Delights by John Masefield and The Children of Green Knowe into this corner. Both of these very different yet imaginative works finish a conflict between good and evil on Christmas Eve. I find it hard to think of a much more appropriate time. I’d better include Dicken’s A Christmas Carol – I do love a redemption story and I can be shamelessly sentimental at times.

I can’t believe I left out Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen – how could I forget brave Gerda and the Little Robber Girl? A wonderful Scandinavian adventure – with heroines.

The Snow Queen By Milo Winter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Next time – from Frankenstein to Sir Gawain.

Do let me know any suggestions you might have – or comments.

The Hundred-Book Challenge

Exploring the books that make me.

a little girl reads a book

I am indebted to David Rain – you can find the article about his reasoning  and the original challenge here.

The Challenge

  • list 100 books that you love
  • only ONE per author
  • any form or genre of writing is allowed – so long as you LOVE it

WARNING: this can take hours of happy research.

Here’s mine, purely in alphabetical order:

Adams, Douglas The Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Universe
Adams, Richard Watership Down
Aiken, Joan The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Aldiss, Bryan Frankenstein Unbound
Allende, Isabel The House of the Spirits
Almond, David My Name is Mina
Anon Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Atkinson, Kate Behind the scenes at the Museum
Barber, Antonia The Ghosts
Bathurst, Bella The Lighthouse Stevensons
Blake, Quentin Mrs Armitage on Wheels
Boston, L. M. The Children of Green Knowe
Briggs, K. M. Hobberdy Dick
Bronte, Charlotte Jane Eyre
Butler-Greenfield, Amy Chantress
Clarke, Susanna Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Connolly, John The Book of Lost Things
Cooper, Susan Greenwitch
Crane, Nicholas Two Degrees West
Dahl, Roald Matilda
Doherty, Berlie Daughter of the Sea
Dowd, Siobhan The Ransom of Dond
Dunmore, Helen The Greatcoat
Dunsany, Lord The King of Elfland’s Daughter
Fox, Essie Elijah’s Mermaid
Francis, Sarah Odd Fish and Englishmen
Gaiman, Neil Coraline
Gardner, Sally Tinder
Garner, Alan The Stone Book Quartet
Gavin, Jamila Coram Boy
Gibbons, Stella Cold Comfort Farm
Gutterson, David Snow falling on Cedars
Haddon, Mark The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
Haig, Matt The Radleys
Hardinge, Frances A Face like Glass
Hardy, Thomas Collected Poetry
Harris, Joanne The Lollipop Shoes
Heller,Joseph Catch 22
Hill, Susan In the Springtime of the Year
Hodgson Burnett, Francis The Secret Garden
Hughes, Ted Remains of Elmet
Ihimaera, Witi The Whale Rider
Jansson, Tove The Summer Book
Juster, Norton The Phantom Tollbooth
Kemp, Gene The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler
Kingsley, Charles The Waterbabies
King-Smith, Dick The Sheep-Pig
Kipling, Rudyard The Just-So Stories
Lanagan, Margot The Brides of Rollrock Island
Langrish, Katherine, West of the Moon
LeGuin, Ursula A Wizard of Earthsea
Lewis, C. S. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Lively, Penelope Astercote
Macdonald, George The Princess and Curdie
MacFarlane, Robert The Old Ways
Mackay Brown, George Greenvoe
Manley-Hopkins, Gerald Major Poems
Mantel, Hilary Beyond Black
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia Love in the Time of Cholera
Mascull, Rebecca The Visitors
Masefield, John The Box of Delights
Mayne, William The Blue Book of Hob Stories
McCaughrean, Geraldine The  White Darkness
McGowan, Anthony Henry Tumour
Meade Faulkner, J. Moonfleet
Mieville, China Railsea
Monk Kidd, Susan The Secret Life of Bees
Morpurgo, Michael Grania O’Malley
Mosse, Kate The Mistletoe Bride
Murphy, Jill Five Minutes’ Peace
Newbery, Linda Lob
Nimmo, Jenny The Snow Spider
Norton, Trevor Reflections on a Summer Sea
Paver, Michelle Dark Matter
Pollock, Tom The City’s Son
Pratchett, Terry I shall wear Midnight
Price, Susan The Sterkarm Handshake
Priestley, Chris Mister Creecher
Proulx, Annie The Shipping News
Prue, Sally Cold Tom
Pullman, Philip The Northern Lights
Ruiz Zafon, Carlos The Name of the Wind
Seuss, Dr The Lorax
Shelley, Mary Frankenstein
Shreve, Anita Sea Glass
Sommer-Bodenburg, Angela The Little Vampire
Sutcliff, Rosemary Beowulf
Swift, Graham Waterland
Thomas, Edward Collected Poetry
Thompson, Kate The New Policeman
Thomson, David The People of the Sea
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings
Tremain, Rose Restoration
Valente, Catherynne M. The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland
Vickers, Salley Miss Garnett’s Angel
Vipont, Elfrida The Elephant and the Bad Baby
Walsh, Pat The Crowfield Curse
Wells, Philip Horsewhispering in the Military-Industrial Complex
Westall, Robert The Kingdom by the Sea
White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web
Zusak, Markus The Book Thief

So unsurprisingly, there are a fair few with more than a hint of fantasy or magical realism. There’s poetry and word-play in many, and definitely a sense of place pervading this selection. The sea and ghosts have a tendency to crop up – and heroines.

I am happy to put in links to The Hive ( which supports independent bookshops) for any title if you are interested – just let me know.

Now – go and do likewise. You might be surprised what you find out.

Sunday Special

On Thursday 31st October 2013  I took myself from West Wittering to Swiss Cottage Library. I didn’t get the prize for furthest travelled – my friend and colleague Julie Pike from Dorset earned that – but I did come away with several small and special treasures.

Firstly the most obvious – signatures from the illustrious guests in copies of their books which I had taken especially. The event was organised by IBBY and focused on using myth, legend and history in writing for children and young people. The four wonderful writers were:

Sally kindly signed my review copy of ‘Tinder’ which I had just finished reading on the train. I shall be writing about it on Serendipity Reviews shortly – but what I can say is that the complete book is most beautifully produced – and was perfect reading for Halloween.

I took ‘Mister Creecher’ for Chris to sign . Those who know me well will know I hold this in high regard – but I am also itching to read ‘The Dead Men Stood Together’. I thoroughly enjoy his thing of taking something from an earlier creepy masterpiece and then genetically engineering a whole new organism out of it.

Susan Cooper made me come all over tongue-tied. Not only is she the author of ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence, but so cool and laid-back and wise I just wanted to breathe the same air in the hopes that something would transfer to me. After all, she inhabited the same Oxford as Tolkien and Lewis, and I think she knows Alan Garner. Phew.

Last but never, ever the least was Geraldine. I took a little paperback copy of the first book I ever read aloud to a class  (Dog Days). Geraldine has written so many smashing books – from Monacello to A Little Lower than than the Angels – that I was spoiled for choice. But I have soft spot for frost fairs and Old London Bridge, and it was a pleasure I shared with the children.

I also took away some less tangible but no less special treasures – in fact I filled the last remaining pages of my Moleskine with them. Here’s a small selection:

Sally Gardner:

  • children can’t be policed in historical fiction – they can have truly great adventures
  • imagination allows you to float your mind out of a situation
  • the pea-soupers she knew as a child around Gray’s Inn were made of ghosts and Charles Dickens

Chris Priestley:

  • historical fiction allows child characters to be master/mistress of their own destiny
  • dystopias are historical fiction – just in another direction
  • he writes for the vestigial 14 year old inside him beguiled by grotesquerie

Susan Cooper:

  • she is obsessed with place, with the layers of time
  • uses the past to illuminate the present but ‘God forbid messages’
  • what a child gets out of a story is not what is put in deliberately to educate – or even to entertain

Geraldine McCaughrean:

  • history was another place where I had often gone as a child
  • after a brilliant rant about bowdlerised folk stories – she said the originals were a a place where we can taste the amoral terrifying darkness, the inchoate beings we all nurse inside
  • research as much as you like – and then around half-way, throw it all away! 

I can only agree with the librarian (whose name sadly I did not catch) who thanked the panel for ‘not dumbing down’. It was an exhilarating evening with far more than these brief highlights – much of which is fermenting in my imagination.


Oh, and one final thing – it’s a really good idea to wear something emblematic such as a silver Peter Pan brooch, a skull close to your neck, a gilded vulture or an interlaced  symbol of Celtic mysticism. I leave you to guess who wore which…

Read all about it

I spent much of today in the rather delightful Book Nook in Hove. (I can recommend the rhubarb and ginger cake). It was good to hear a proper bookseller helping both adults and children find the right books for them with tact and knowledge.

I have to say how amused and impressed I was when a rather ambitious yummy mummy was steered ever so gently towards the concept of reading for pleasure – as opposed to reading to achieve. A triumph of manoeuvring.

The babble of babies and small children was a surprisingly pleasing background to editing tasks – perhaps reminding me of why I bother. I completed a major task – and then rewarded myself with a good browse.

What a pleasure it was to see the work of people I know at least by sight (in no particular order):

  • Dave Cousins
  • Lucy Christopher
  • Malorie Blackman
  • Meg Rossoff
  • Patrick Ness
  • Teri Terry
  • Jon Mayhew
  • Chris Riddell

The astute reader will have noticed how many of these are SCBWI folk. And there were more, I am certain. It gave me an interesting feeling of companionship to see them – and maybe a sense of pride. Pride that fellow children’s writers and illustrators made such lovely things.

I also felt a sense of achievement in knowing my genres, ages and stages much better these days. This is much to do with my reading for the lovely Vivienne da Costa at Serendipity Reviews. There is nothing like reading to give you a sense of the world of children’s literature – it’s just so broad and fascinating.

In the main , it’s good to see your friends and colleagues succeed – the world of writing for young readers is big enough for all of us. I would be a liar if I didn’t admit to the odd stab of pain when someone I know gets published – when I’ve just had another rejection. BUT it is only transient.

And if it’s a brilliant book, well, all the more for me to enjoy. That goes for authors and genres I didn’t know before, too.

Something to sing about.

Yet the very best thing is realising that I do have a distinctive voice emerging. I haven’t read anything quite like my work yet. Of course it might be that it’s uniquely weird – but that’s not necessarily a problem. Uniquely bad would be – but seriously, I know it isn’t that awful.

So I feel rather buoyed up by that – though a few quid lighter!

Who would have thought I’d buy books?

How about you – what does a bookshop browse do for you?


Wrong but romantic

I am in Devon as I write; overlooking glorious rolling countryside and listening to ducks, jackdaws and the trees rustling.

En route at Westbury station, I had a sudden thrill. A steam train passed through with all its noise and smoke and glamour. For one exhilarating moment,I felt I’d slipped back in time. My heart raced and I grinned like a loon.

I love that sense of history as a fluid thing. I have rarely been happier than at Oakwell hall years ago wandering around the candlelit hall in costume and listening to old carols sung live. For me there was the echo of a scene in The Children of Green Knowe where Tolly and his great grandmother hear a woman sing Lully Lullay – and a baby goes to sleep four hundred years ago. It still brings tears to my eyes.

I have a deep affection for many old things – and it’s not a product of my age. I loved brass rubbings in the Lower VI form, declared  that I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was nine and haunted castles and museums and churches happily all through my childhood and beyond.

Partly I am seduced by beauty. I find carefully handmade things be they ancient or modern, a joy, but there’s something even more special about an object that has been treasured for centuries.

In Hennock church somehow  an original painted rood screen from the Middle Ages has survived. It’s no masterpiece in many people’s view – but I found it rather moving. How did they keep it from the zealots of the Reformation or the Puritans in the Civil War era?

That’s the sort of story I respond to: where an object or a house or some such embodies the tale of survival against the odds. It’s not the thing itself that moves me – it’s the story beneath.

So I embrace the idea that my stories are far more likely to involve candlesticks, gargoyles or moorland crosses than mobile phones. In fact, I am unlikely to reference the 21st Century at all. Let my talented colleagues tackle that with their own passion and knowledge.

I will carry on being a ‘romancer’ in my own way.

Besides, whether they wear zips or calico buttons, trainers or hob-nailed boots, people are still endlessly fascinating.


Bobbing about

Not me – but just as exhilarating

I’ve just been for a refreshing swim in the Solent. Whilst I was splashing about and enjoying the waves, I thought about The House with No Name and our seaside retreats venture. How do I get it going?

I really don’t want to be a pushy, self-promoting twonk but I do want people to know about it. I had found that no-one knew in the village about my B&B – and even worse, if they had, they would have told visitors. I don’t want that to happen with this enterprise. I can’t afford it to.

And on the other side of the process, I have had such conflicting advice about running a B&B or guesthouse. I’ve also had a variety of experiences. How do I decide what to do for the best?

He looks thoughtful, too.

The only way as far as I can see to combine integrity with our coastal retreat business is a commitment to provide what our guests really want. A commitment to help, to nurture and to find out what truly works for them.

I was thrilled when Lynn Breeze commented:

involving us all in this way makes us feel a part of it too

That’s just what I want.

The same goes for the promotion of our seaside retreats. I can’t be like a barker in Leeds covered-in market bawling out her wares (much as I admire the brash energy of such an approach). To find the energy to keep putting our venture forward, I have to believe in what I’m doing. It has to be honest.

Partly, I am inspired by the lovely and very astute Deborah Dooley.( If you need a sojourn deep in the heart of the Devon countryside, I particularly recommend her ancient house for its welcoming atmosphere and delectable fire.)

Her approach to advertising Retreats for You is straightforward. She simply communicates what she’s been doing. It’s genuine and engaging and gives you a good sense of what’s she’s about. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and I hope she won’t mind me doing something similar.


  • I will jabber on enthusiastically about what I’m up to
  • I will ask questions – repeatedly
  • I will value any comments and suggestions from you lovely lot
  • PLEASE tell me what you want
Thank you for reading.
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