Archive for the 'books' Category

Crimea, books, blues

It wasn’t just me trying to get away from Ukraine horrors and headaches at the Lviv Publisher’s Forum. Four days of books, books, books and more; jazz, verse, philosophy, fairytales…

I was there to present the Ukrainian translation of Dream Land. And of course,  to meet friends and fellow writers from all over Ukraine and from Crimea – Crimean Tatars who had come to read their poetry, play music, walk the cobbled streets listening to the jangle of Ukrainian and Russian and English and Polish – and feel like they could breathe again.

“The people here are beautiful,” one said as we walked round Lviv. She didn’t mean their features or their clothes; she meant the feeling of freedom they carry around inside them. The feeling the Crimean Tatars have had taken away from them in Crimea.

We talked about how hard it would be to go back to Crimea when the forum was over. But how hard – now the Crimean Tatar Mejlis building has been surrounded and searched today by armed police, now yet more Mejlis members’ houses have been searched – I for one did not guess that.

It’s been a good few days for Dream Land, which has been nominated for Ukrainian book of the year. It’s been a horrible few days for the Crimean Tatars.

Time to start writing that sequel at last…? I don’t know if I can. But someone has to.

More on IZOLYATSIA

literature, language, industry, art and war, over on ABBA today.

‘Literature truly nourishes the hungry’

Last year wasn’t a very great writing year for me. Nor a great reading year either.

I think I lost faith in literature. I started to wonder what was the point of putting all these words down on paper or a screen, sending them out into the world while the world seemed in so many ways to be falling apart. And if I couldn’t see the point of writing myself, why would I want to read other people’s words? Or, if I didn’t want to read other people, why would I bother to write myself?

I didn’t write, so I didn’t read. I didn’t read, so I didn’t write. The world continued to fall apart regardless.

For Christmas I got Burying the Typewriter, by Carmen Bugan, from someone who didn’t realise I’d pretty much given up reading.

In this memoir of Ceausescu’s Romania, Bugan’s father bought two typewriters. One stayed on the living room table, and 12-year-old Carmen wrote poems on it. The other was a secret typewriter. Carmen’s parents dug it up and typed anti-Ceausescu protest leaflets on it all night. Every morning, they buried it again in the back garden.

Ion Bugan went to prison for five years because of that secret typewriter and the words he wrote on it. The rest of the family was starved, ostracised, spied on and relentlessly persecuted by the secret police. The only teacher who dared show Carmen any kindness at school was her literature teacher, Lucia, who secretly gave her salami sandwiches.

Carmen writes:

 ‘With time, she [Lucia] will become the reason I believe that literature truly nourishes the hungry. She will become the reason I love morphology and syntax, and she will suffer with me through my family’s nightmares and through my intense love of poetry, which often makes me confuse the worlds of reality and imagination. I will never, for the rest of my life, know or love a teacher more.’

While I was reading these words, the British press was full of words about Romanians – words like job stealers, benefits scroungers. I wonder what Carmen Bugan, who knows what it is to starve, who has this astonishing faith in literature, thinks about those words; the power they have.

burying-the-typewriter-978144721084901

I’m back to writing again. And to reading. I felt humbled by Burying the Typewriter. And stupid too, to have doubted the relevance of literature. Literature can be a salami sandwich when you’re starving. It can be a prison sentence. The difference between a closed door and an open one, into another country,  to a better life.

This post also appears on ABBA today.

I add an E

Riding Icarus and Dream Land, my two novels with Walker books, are now available not just as paperbacks, but as eBooks at Amazon (Kindle), Waterstones, Kobo and iTunes iBookstore.

Dream Land, set in Crimea, is based on the true story of one of the Second World War’s more forgotten atrocities: the deportation of the Crimean Tatars; and their return home over fifty years later.

Riding Icarus is an urban fairytale introducing younger readers to a surreal world of witches riding trolleybuses and mafiosi driving Mercedes’ in modern-day Ukraine.

Home is where the library is

For years, like many people I suppose, visiting my parents has also been revisiting childhood landscapes, dreams, hopes – and books.

In one specific way, these are all the same thing. I grew up in Alan Garner country. From the field above our house you could see Shuttlingsloe, Shining Tor, Mow Cop. These were simultaneously the hills my parents dragged me to for boring walks (boring because I’d much rather have been at home reading books) and perilous places of terror and enchantment where the Morrigan rode and Roman legionaries went native far from home – all inside those same Garner books.

These days I’d rather stomp over the hills than read even a fantastic book. But it’s a tradition that, when visiting my parents, I’ll follow a walk through those semi-mythical landscapes by curling up with the books of my childhood, which my parents have kept in a wonderful library collected over the years. Alongside Alan Garner there’s Diana Wynne Jones, Rosemary Sutcliff, Peter Dickinson, Joan Aiken, Leon Garfield, Susan Cooper, Noel Streatfeild, Elizabeth Goudge, Robert Westall… It is partly a retreat into the voracious reading of childhood, when the world of the book is more real than the real world (Tom and Jan on Mow Cop in Red Shift more immediate and vital than any boring walk there with my parents), partly a salute to these authors who inspired me to start writing myself (when those walks ceased to be boring, as I dreamed up my own stories to fit the landscapes) and partly an investigation as a writer, always learning, always hoping, always marvelling at how the masters manage it.

Now my parents are downsizing (isn’t everybody?). There isn’t room for everything, so I spent last week packing up the children’s library to send off to its new home with my brother, in a different county, far from the landscapes of childhood.

One box packed, ten more to go...

One box packed, ten more to go…

I also sorted through a drawer of my own childhood and adolescent writings. Most of them are awful. I can read them now and identify, paragraph by paragraph, here is Rosemary Sutcliff, here is Diana Wynne Jones, here is Ursula le Guin, Sutcliff again, Dickinson, again Sutcliff…

But in among the styles and stories lifted wholesale from other authors and legends and fairytales and films, the one thing that rings at all true is the landscape. I knew from Garner that stories as deep as myth could be written about an everyday real place. I took Narnia and Dalemark and Camelot and transposed them to the field above our house, to the hills and moors you can see from there. And in the process, I think I started to find myself as a writer.

I moved away from my parents years ago, and I’ve never written about that landscape since. I don’t know if I ever will again; I can’t lay claim to Alderley Edge or Shuttlingsloe the way Alan Garner can; though I grew up with them, the roots go no further back. Yet the roots do run deep. I’ll miss the children’s library; in a way it was what made my parents’ house still home. But the landscape, informed as it is by that library, is even more important to me. Those fields and hills are full not only of the dreams and truths I read in The Moon of Gomrath or Red Shift, but of my own dreams of stories and hopes to be a writer.

This post also appears on ABBA today

What happened to Utopia?

A conversation with a fourteen-year-old reader inspired my post today on ABBA, about the current vogue for YA dystopian fiction, or ‘dyslit’.

We know the world’s going to hell in a handbasket. When its all bad news, bad news, bad news in fact and in fiction, its hard to remember that the future is not a disaster waiting to happen; the future is what we make of it.

Perhaps I will make it my mission to set a new vogue: for dyslit’s inversion, utolit…

Eating or reading the wrong thing

Ive posted on ABBA today about the Flower Fairy books, and how if my niece had read them she probably would have been spared a nasty experience after eating some poisonous arum or lords-and-ladies berries (they were green, and she thought they were peas. At least she knew that peas do actually grow somewhere, and are not born frozen in a supermarket; it’s just a pity she didn’t know that they grow in pods).

It’s got me thinking about some of the classics of children’s fiction I grew up on, like Richard Adams’ Watership Down or The Sword in the Stone by TH White, where absolutely accurate, close observation of the natural world informs and indeed forms an imaginative narrative.

I can’t think of any contemporary children’s fiction that is based so comprehensively and accurately around observation of nature – which seems odd, considering our preoccupation with threats to the environment, Can you?

The lords-and-ladies fairy, from Flower Fairies of the Autumn by Cicely Mary Barker

Translated again

This time into Korean, in the anthology Under the Weather (originally published by Frances Lincoln).

All the stories, by such great writers as Miriam Halahmy, Candy Gourlay and Linda Newbery, deal with the subject of climate change.

Funnily enough, my story, ‘Climate [Short]change’, is also about mistranslation. It’s set in remotest Siberia where the reindeer outnumber people, and deals with an encounter between Western European Climate Change scientists and Nenets fishers and herders.

I love the fact that my text, telling in English of the misunderstandings and friendships that arise between Russian and German speakers, now has a whole new existence in yet another language. And it’s heartening to know that all the stories in the book, about the future of the planet and its children, are now going to reach a new audience on the other side of the world.

The Long Winter

by Laura Ingalls Wilder is the only book I want to be reading at the moment. I’ve written about it over on ABBA today; would love to hear others’ cold weather literary favourites…

The kids are alright

…at reading, anyway. We’re so constantly told that children, and especially boys, don’t read. The organizers of the Kid’s Lit Quiz clearly – and rightly – don’t believe it.

This annual quiz, now held in seven countries, challenges 10–13 year olds to answer 100 questions on literature. The South London heat yesterday (in which I took part on the author’s team) gathered over twenty school teams whose knowledge about books – their themes, their authors, their heroes and villains, their mythologies, details, dialogue, descriptions – really was encyclopaedic.

The questions, all prepared by NZ quizmaster Wayne Mills, weren’t all about current UK best-sellers. They took in Greek and Egyptian myth, the earliest picture books and sophisticated YA novels, New Zealand and Italy and Canada and Germany.

It was really wonderful to see so much knowledge and enthusiasm about books among these young people. So boys don’t read? The three winning teams were all boys.

(Lindsey Barraclough, Sarwat Chadda, Sophia Bennett and me on the authors’ team didn’t do too badly either, I should add in modest brackets)

The questions are in ten themed categories: strangely enough we authors turned out to be most collectively knowledgeable about rabbits and wolves. Don’t quite know what that says about us…

Many thanks to the organisers of the Kid’s Lit Quiz and of monday’s heat at King’s College School, Wimbledon, for the opportunity to take part in such a fun event.


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A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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