Sunday 30 August 2015

When book meets cover, by Paula Harrison

Bringing a fantasy world to life can't be easy, so I want to say a massive THANK YOU to Lisa Evans the illustrator of the Dark Tree Shining cover. It's the detail on this cover that I find fascinating, and the more you look the more you see.

The book (which is the sequel to Red Moon Rising) is set in the little village of Skellmore but a lot of the story occurs in Hobbin Forest, a place full of deadly faerie rings and fierce hobgobbits. This forest has always been important to the Fair Eyes, especially the Thorn tribe with their power over trees, but now evil has entered the wood. I was particularly thrilled by the crows at the top of the picture as they bring this sense of menace alive. It's so brilliant when a story and a cover work together like this. Here's an extract from the story... with crows!

Laney looked from Fletcher’s serious face to the mass of trees on the other side of the field. There had always been something odd about Hobbin Forest. It didn’t seem like an evil place, just very old as if it knew ancient secrets it would never share. People would come and go while the forest remained, wrapped in its own mystery and not caring about the wave of human life sweeping by. Wouldn’t the Shadow find it the perfect place to hide?

She lifted her chin. Maybe going in there and facing her fear would get rid of it. ‘We have to check the forest sometime,’ she said. ‘I think we should just get it over with.’

‘Fine,’ said Claudia. ‘But it’s a huge place. It’s going to take ages.’

They hurried towards the forest. Laney tried to keep up with Claudia’s long graceful strides. She looked up at the dark treeline just before they plunged inside. A mob of crows flew squawking above the topmost branches, filling the air with their ragged, black wings.

If you go to Lisa's website you soon realise that all her work has this fascinating attention to detail and she has the ability to evoke atmosphere in her pictures. Dark Tree Shining is out in 4 weeks. I'm so pleased that the story was given a cover illustrator with such great skill and imagination!

Thursday 20 August 2015

Witches, Demons and a Most Sarcastic Dormouse - an Interview with Matt Ralphs

With 12 years of experience in the publishing industry, Matt Ralphs has enjoyed working at Hachette Children’s on a wide range of books from science fiction, fantasy, history, art, humanities and children’s, including the bestselling Beast Quest series.

Matt’s debut novel Fire Girl is a fast-paced, exciting story full of danger and suspense with a strong historical/fantasy setting and memorable characters. 12-year-old Hazel has never left the magical glade where she lives with her mother, Hecate, but when a demon breaks in and snatches Hecate, Hazel sets off in pursuit. Accompanied by her grumpy dormouse familiar but with no friends in the outside world, she enlists the help of a young demon-hunter and his master, the drunken Titus White. But Titus isn't just a demon-hunter, he's also a witch-finder and if he ever discovers that Hazel has magical powers of her own, he'll turn on her in an instant.

How and when did you start writing Fire Girl?

My fear of realising that I had no writing talent held me back for a long time, and I only started Fire Girl when I decided that if I wanted to fulfil my dream of getting a novel published, I had to sit down, do the hard work, and actually write one. That was about six years ago.

I’ve still not overcome that fear, by the way. I’ve just learnt how to ignore it.

The novel is set during the Cromwellian witch hunts. How much of the setting is based on real history, and how much is pure invention?
I love history, and use it as an inspiration and springboard for my stories, layering my own inventions and ideas over the top.

The landscape, architecture, clothes, food, weapons, and some of the characters Hazel encounters are based on real history. But the magic, demons and some of the technology is made up. I twisted, distorted, discoloured and vandalised real history to create the world of Fire Girl.

Do you have a favourite character in the book?

Well, I’m rather attached to them all! I like Nicolas Murrell, the dark-magic wielding demonologist. Although he does terrible things, his motives are understandable. I tried to ensure that the so-called villains in Fire Girl are relatable, and not just moustache-twirling, cackling evil-doers with no proper motivation.

But I like Titus White, the ailing Witch Finder, best. He’s a man well past his prime, a bad tempered drinker, plagued with dark moods and raging at the dying of the light. But underneath the bluster he’s a good man.

Which character was hardest to write? 

I treasure the characters like Bramley and Titus who arrive in my mind fully formed – they’re so easy!­

However it took me a long time to get Hazel right. She was always driven and active in the story, but at the start of her development she was a bit too . . . nice. A bit dull. So I gave her a temper and a playful, teasing nature and she began to take shape from there.

Bramley brings out the best in her I think, and hopefully she’ll develop further as the series progresses.

Bramley, Hazel’s sarcastic dormouse familiar, is amazing. What gave you the idea for a dormouse?

I realised early on in the writing that Hazel had to have a companion or she’d have no one to talk to! And as she’s a Witch it made sense to make that companion a familiar. The familiar had to be small enough to hide on her person so her identity as a Witch could remain a secret from her enemies. Then I thought of the dormouse mentioned briefly in the first chapter and decided he’d be perfect.

So it was a sort of random creative process that gave me Bramley – and I’m glad it did because people do seem to be responding well to the grumpy little tyke.

What have you most enjoyed about being an author so far?

So many things! Writing full time with the brilliant support of Macmillan Children’s Books; having a fantastic editor; seeing ‘Fire Girl’ in print; watching the trailer on the Guardian website; reading positive reviews; being fortunate enough to be doing what I love the most for a living...

I could go on, but I don’t want to sound too smug.

Will Hazel and her mother survive book 2?

Oh, now come on! I’m not going to give that away!

It was worth a try.  We’ll just have to wait for the sequel.  When will the next instalment be published?

Fire Witch publishes sometime in early 2016.

Thanks, Matt.  Fire Girl is published by Macmillan.  For more details and to see the awesome trailer, check out the Macmillan website here.  

Interview by Claire Fayers.

Sunday 16 August 2015

Imogen's Book of the Week: Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Castle, by Gabrielle Kent, published by Scholastic

Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Castle, by Gabrielle Kent

My Sunday best this week, before I vanish for the rest of August, is the first in a fantasy series following the adventures of ‘ordinary boy’ Alfie Bloom, who’s just manifested a startling ability – and come into an unexpected inheritance.

When Alfie finds himself the possessor of Hexbridge, the mysterious castle of the title, he's delighted to explore the sprawling reaches of his new domain, meet its unusual butler, Ashford, and have the chance to spend more time with his favourite cousins, Hexbridge locals Maddie and Robin. But there's more to Alfie’s new surroundings than mere bricks and mortar; more even than the highly unusual bearskin rug, Artan, who can speak – and fly. Alfie now finds himself custodian not just of the castle, but of a centuries-old druidic magic. And his new headmistresses Murkle and Snitch, unamiable characters with a creative, Trunchbull-esque line in punishments, seem unnervingly interested in both…

With its young protagonist, magical inheritance and secret-riddled, ancient environment, 'Alfie Bloom' has plenty in common with both Harry Potter and Skulduggery Pleasant. But it’s more unquestionably aimed at 8-12-year-old readers than both of these brilliant series, which, as they become progressively more challenging and bloody, tend to nudge their way over into 'teen' territory. And I think it’s a splendid addition to the MG fantasy canon, in part because of this. In her assured debut, Gabrielle Kent satisfies the young reader's craving for superhuman capabilities and endless explorable space without penetrating too deeply into the darker realms of what they might involve - instead, there's more emphasis here on joyous wish-fulfilment, and, in particular, the uncomplicated delight of sharing windfall wealth and power with your best friends. With elements of Blyton, Dahl and Nesbit in the mix, a thoroughly likeable and decent protagonist, a well-realised and enticing world, and a satisfying, meaty story with the sense of more to come, this series should get a lot of kids happily hooked, and agog for the second to appear.

Sunday 9 August 2015

Imogen's Book of the Week: First Class Murder by Robin Stevens, published by Random House

My Sunday best this week is a gripping locked-room mystery, starring two intrepid schoolgirl detectives.

The Wells and Wong series of murder mysteries, featuring youthful Detective Society members Daisy and Hazel, got off to a superb start last year with Murder Most Unladylike, set in the regimented environment of Deepdean, a 1930s boarding school for girls. In book two, Arsenic for Tea, Daisy’s own aristocratic family fell under suspicion as she and Hazel spent their holidays together at Fallingford, her ancestral pad. Now Deepdean's finest are taking to the tracks, in the exotic confines of the Orient Express.


This time round, Daisy is accompanying Hazel and her father on holiday – but they’re under Mr Wong’s firm instructions not to attempt any detective work. Instead, they’re to behave in a civilised, ladylike manner, all the way to Istanbul.  But it’s evident from the outset that everyone in their carriage has something to hide, from secretive magician Il Mysterioso to ill-tempered diet-pill magnate William Daunt. And, when a piercing shriek rips through the train, the Detective Society are on the scene, ready to attempt their first locked-cabin mystery…

First Class Murder is a delightful homage to Agatha Christie, by way of Enid Blyton and Angela Brazil – but it’s by no means uncritical, or blinkered by nostalgia. Where the Queen of Crime disconcerts contemporary readers with her casual racism, Stevens’ narrator Hazel quietly analyses and deals with the assumptions made about her because she’s Chinese, just as she has done from the beginning of the series. Revelling in pitch-perfect period detail – ‘rich, smooth, golden wood, picked out in beautiful floral marquetry’ – and the delicate pastries on offer in the dining car, we still remain connected to the reality that sees Hazel and her father casually shouldered aside, despite their smart travel clothing, and to the gathering clouds of European anti-Semitism.

Although, to me, the hinge of the murder mystery was rather too easy to spot, I found the development of Hazel’s relationship with her father – austere and strict, but profoundly proud of his intelligent daughter – thoughtful and moving, imbuing this rich and satisfying series with another layer of nuance and emotion. Fans of The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, Rooftoppers, Sherlock Holmes, and anyone who likes involving mysteries, told with compelling, deceptive simplicity, should take a ticket for First Class Murder forthwith.

Sunday 2 August 2015

Imogen’s Book of the Week: The Secrets of Sam and Sam by Susie Day, illustrated by Aaron Blecha, published by Red Fox (Random House)

Today’s Sunday Best is a warm-hearted, adventurous, contemporary tale of family, fears, growing up, and facing both the future and the past.

The Secrets of Sam and Sam

Susie Day’s popular Pea series, starring Clover, Tinkerbell and the eponymous Pea, has featured their neighbours, the Paget-Skidelskys, from the outset: Mum Gen, Mum K and their boy-and-girl twins Sam and Sam, with the recent addition of a puppy called Surprise. In Day’s new book, though, the Sams get their own starring role - and it’s a corker.

Pea's Book of Best Friends

Sam and Sam have always had the same haircuts, the same outfits, and the same name. But now, at eleven, the newly-declared Sammie wants to grow her hair, and assert herself as – self-evidently – the best twin. Sam, meanwhile, resents his relegation to the role of sensible sidekick. Both of them have school trials to face, too, before they say goodbye to Orchid Lane Primary for good. Sammie has a best friend vacancy that obstinately refuses to be filled, and Sam absolutely cannot go on the residential to Treetops, paralysed by his fear of heights - and of the supervising teacher, mean Mrs McMin.  But their mums don’t take their worries seriously, despite being child psychologists. And they seem to be keeping some kind of secret...

Characteristically warm, subtle, and funny, with some lump-in-throat moments of pure, poignant sorrow, Day’s exploration of identity, fear, and the very first toe-dip into uncharted adolescence makes this an understatedly special story. The family set-up is handled with a realistic lightness of touch – having two mums is par for the course for the Sams and their pals, although it excites comment from the slightly spiteful new girl Emily. And the twins, as ever, are deliciously different: boy Sam is gentle, kind, and prone to over-thinking, while girl Sam is rambunctious, bold and given to leaping before she looks. But both of them remain hummus-averse, hilarious, and immensely appealing – and Aaron Blecha’s funny, comic-style line drawings perfectly evoke both their wide-eyed enthusiasm and hidden fears. A perfect book for those facing Big School in September – and for anyone who likes adventure stories packed with both humour and heart.