Archive | November 2012

Maggot Moon, Sally Gardner

There have only ever been two books that I’ve read in an  afternoon. The first was Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. The second happened yesterday – the whirl of language-bending, hope-inspiring, gut-crunching pages that make up Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner.

Published by Hot Key Books, hardback, £10.99

Standish Treadwell is a hero of fantastic name and unlucky fortune. He lives with his Gramps in Zone Seven in an unnamed dystopian regime (although it is frequently called the Motherland by its inhabitants) where the streets are policed and people go missing every now and then. Standish, at the age of fifteen, is a dyslexic and possibly autistic boy who can’t spell but is adept at deciphering foreign languages by the sound of them. His school is full of bullies both teenage and, terrifyingly, adult; his home is sometimes cold and devoid of food.

Along comes Hector and his parents, who turn out to be dangerously linked to the moon landing the country is building up to. Add to that the secret in Gramps’s shed and the ever-tightening ring of surveillance and you get a magnificent piece of work. It starts off as what you think is a familiar schoolboy coming-of-age novel. It quickly turns into a pitch-perfect mix of genres that leaves your mind turning over the events.

Gardner adroitly mixes and plays with her turns of phrase, demonstrating enviable skill. She does this both in her own right as an author (“this hat was knife sharp with a brim that could slice a lie in half” is one example of her wonderful craftmanship) and as a method of communicating Standish’s dyslexia (at one point he talks about meat being “screwered”).

Standish and Gramps, and indeed the rest of the characters, are presented so realistically that you form genuine feelings towards each one. I believe the reason the book works so well is because it puts real characters in trying situations and allows them to behave exactly as they would. You feel that much more sickened by what occurs because of that.

Reading through, I couldn’t help but be reminded of other books and genres. This is by no means a bad thing. Gardner’s story has immediately found a home on the literary scale. At the same time, it hones in on the tropes you know and gives them a bitter twist. The best way to describe Maggot Moon is like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas meets Goodnight Mr. Tom meets A Clockwork Orange. 

For adult and teenage readers, Maggot Moon is a rare gem: a brilliant read that feels realistic in its character portrayal and dialogue, while communicating without ceremony the raw cruelty of dictatorships. I hope this book moves into modern classic status. It deserves it, and it deserves to be read.


The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

I admit it. I saw the film adaptation first. I’d not given much time of day to Suzanne Collins or her books – not maliciously, but because I felt I was above the age of her intended audience. I saw the film on a whim with a friend and was surprised at the gravity of it.

Following on from that, I debated whether or not to buy the book itself. The font’s rather large and for someone like me with no steady income at present, it seemed a bit of a waste.

Then a friend of my housemate leant me her copy and all was put right.

The general gist is that Katniss and Peeta, two kids from the coal mining section of a dystopian former-America named Panem (Latin for ‘bread’, part of the mob-calming formula ‘panem et circensus’), get involved in annual every-man-for-himself gladiatorial bloodbath, the Hunger Games. Arrow-firing, tree-climbing Katniss is there because she’d rather take the place of her little sister Prim, who would definitely die in the arena. The twenty-four Tributes (two from each resource-producing district) must fight to the death, leaving one victor.

The Games are thrilling entertainment for the haves, who are classically unaware of the plights of the have-nots. The book explores the intriguing/terrifying concept of reviving violence for entertainment’s sake, and when it is taken to professional heights. The arena in which these kids compete is digitally constructed by Gamesmakers, giving the whole thing an air of despicable profitability and calculation.

It is typical YA fiction in that the main character is different to her contemporaries and predecessors. Of course she is, otherwise there’d be no story. Collins is neat and cunning with her presentation of Katniss as a guarded, barbed young woman who believably rejects the affection of anyone except her little sister. She never comes off as affectedly cool  or apathetic: she’s just been hurt too many times. Peeta’s a contrast, in that he’s largely pathetic, but again believably so.

It is atypical, however, in most other aspects. For instance, you know from the start that Katniss is going to survive. Why else would the book be from her perspective? But Collins’s real trick here does not lie with the preservation of Katniss. She knows that you will know. Instead, she makes the reader care about the survival of Peeta and the perpetuation of the triumphant public image the pair of fighters present. In short, Collins plays the reader right along with the audiences watching the Games. If you enjoy the romance between the two, are you just as bad as the cooing, clueless aristocrats in the Capitol? Perhaps you are. Perhaps it’s better to be like that than to consider an alternate future for the pair.

Collins’s minor characters are just as good. The key to their brilliance is that no one is straightforwardly likeable or dislikeable (apart from maybe Rue, the littlest Tribute, and the book’s real heartstring-tugger). Standouts include the plump green-skinned make up artist Octavia, spoiled from living in the Capitol but who is revealed to be a social minor, and Foxface, an elusive Tribute who spends much of the book hiding offscreen, and who tightens the tension when least expected.

As for the structure – I basically finished the thing in two 1 hour 50 minute train journeys. The present tense and the bloodiness of content keep the suspense up, so you do actually get a real live page-turner. It’s frustrating that the book finishes on such a cliffhanger, because it feels like you’ve run off the railroads at breakneck speed and stopping is almost unbearable. It’s an obvious ploy to keep you reading.  It’s a good selling tactic, though.

Though sometimes troubling (and possibly completely unsuitable for anyone younger than thirteen), The Hunger Games is what dystopian and YA fiction should try and be: thought-provoking, vividly written, colourfully populated. There is genuinely nothing I can fault in the text. A full five stars to this bravest of Brave New Worlds.


**I’m currently midway through the third installment in the series; unfortunately, the second and third books are nowhere near as good. I may review them to have a full collection, however.**

Job hunting; please send wine

Because I’m now getting to the stage in joblessness when no jobs are forthcoming and I have plenty of time and DESPAIR on my hands, I’ve decided to pour at least 34% of my free time into something special.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…

The Job Hunting Drinking Game

Level One: The Hunt

Drink when you see the following in job ads:

1. experienced

2. team player

3. self-starter

4. motivated

5. ambitious

6. analyst


Two fingers for:

1. immediate start

2. attractive extras

3. unpaid intern

4. social media

5. sales & marketing


**BONUS!** A finger per year of experience required

**BONUS!** A finger per specific Microsoft Office program mentioned


Optional Level:

If you’re insane enough to drink during an interview, take a drink for:

1. when you’re asked to describe yourself

2. if you’re asked to clarify what your degree actually was

3. when you’re asked if you have any questions

3b. if you don’t have any questions ready to ask

3c. if you blag a question that is clearly bullshit

3d. if you blag a question that comes out surprisingly confident


Two fingers for: “Describe a time that you faced a challenge and explain how you overcame it.”

Down your drink for: Any reference to talking about your weakness and how you’ll improve it.

Buy yourself another drink as a reward if you’ve got the balls to say “I have no weaknesses.”


Level Two: The Rejection

Down your drink for:

No response at all after you’ve been promised an email letting you know either way

A response telling you you’ve been rejected

Anything referencing other candidates having better skills than you

Anything referencing other candidates having more experience than you

“I wish you the best of luck in your future career.”

Anything said at all in any rejection email whatsoever – you’re the one whose still jobless, you deserve to get trollied.

The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien

Sometimes there’s a tricky issue in reviewing classics, even more so when it’s children’s literature. By even thinking of doing this I am literally treading all over some people’s childhood happiness, but it needs to be done. 

I am sure many of you reading this read The Hobbit when you were younger. My childhood was largely comprised of fantasy pony stories, which then switched to mythology and illustrated horror books fairly rapidly. Long story short, I’ve just finished reading The Hobbit for the first time, at the age of twenty-two.

The book begins with homely philosophical chap Martin Freeman Bilbo Baggins, titular hobbit, pottering about in his nicely-kept home. Domestic bliss is interrupted by Gandalf, who is an excellent character because he is great at arriving unannounced, saying all the worst things to Bilbo, and being completely blasé about doing so. He’s charmingly infuriating.

Shortly after this, a pack (Herd? Beard?) of dwarves  arrives, and Bilbo is whisked away to reclaim the kingdom and treasure of head dwarf Thorin, from the great dragon Smaug. Along the way, the group run headlong into giant spiders, goblins, giant spiders, mischievous elves, Gollum the… whatever he is, and most importantly, giant spiders, because guys, they all seriously nearly wind up being sucked dry by giant spiders.

Mostly, the book is quite entertaining. Tolkien writes with an old schoolmaster tone which would lend itself well to being read aloud. Those of you with an issue to episodic structure should be warned that Tolkien pretty much works chapter by chapter, a la Lewis Carroll, but this format means evening reading sessions can be divided up neatly. The adventure itself is mainly exciting, due to the fact that the supporting cast of villains is genuinely repulsive.

A highlight is when Bilbo & Co. are captured by goblins: before ambushing the adventurers, the goblins take their ponies, and the animals are deemed unrescuable goblin cuisine. It’s a mark of how good Tolkien can be with emotional manipulation when he makes you care about non-talking animals. In the claustrophobic tunnels of the goblin abode, you start to feel your heart race and when Bilbo breaks out into the open air, it’s a shared feeling of relief between you and him.

Unfortunately, some of Tolkien’s mistakes (in my view) also lie with his characterisation. Why does he need to pile on the dwarves? Leader Thorin and fat elderly Bombur are fleshed-out and provide, respectively, a driving force behind the quest and understated comic relief. But the rest of them – Oin, Gloin, Fili, Kili, Snap, Crackle, Pop, Simon and Schuster – what purpose do they serve? Yes, they form the illusion of an army; but why else? It’s like Tolkien was trying to hit his NaNo count the cheap way.

Stylistically, the age shows (the songs, for example), but they’re charming enough. They do read like filler material, though on the other hand they are testament to how much detail Tolkien layered on Middle Earth.

But the biggest flaw is with the structure. Smaug is by far one of the most interesting characters in the whole book. His exchanges with Bilbo do genuinely raise a few laughs. Tolkien’s error was to build up to Smaug’s entrance through three-quarters of the text, and then to kill off the dragon with nary a fanfare. Bilbo expresses dismay that the adventure could not be over with Smaug’s death: I felt the same way.

In conclusion, the book is a good fast read, ideal for engaging classrooms or children at home with reading aloud. It’s not a through and through masterpiece as it’s claimed, however, and you might end up feeling like the book concludes with more of a grunt than a roar.


Young publishers’ support posts: #1

Tip one: Have patience

You’re entering a hard, hard-pushed, hardline industry. You should know that now. When you come fresh from university and narrow your job searches down to “Publishing; editorial; entry-level,” you should understand that you will get next to nothing.

Publishers will tweet their vacancies, stick them up on various sites and agency blogs, but they will almost always demand skills that you don’t have. An English degree has not furnished you with STM experience, or at least 12 months’ experience in an office environment.

Getting to where you want to be in publishing seems (to me, at least) to be equal parts waiting game and passionate job applications. First, you need to learn how to be patient, in order to build up your experiences and then glean what you can from them.

Try these tips…

  1. Look for internships – in both big and local publishers. Check out their work experience schemes and apply.
  2. If a publisher doesn’t have a visible internship page or advertisement, try sending a speculative email. This may work better with smaller publishers (indeed, it was how I got an internship last year). Try not to sound too pushy or brash.
  3. Some of you won’t need this tip but others will definitely appreciate it. When dealing with staff at the job centre, always be polite and friendly. Even if staff are abrupt with you (and you will encounter one at some point), remain patient and, if you feel like you’ve been mistreated, write down the details and make a formal complaint. It never does to lose your temper.
  4. Prepare for your interviews thoroughly and calmly. View it as an audition, in which how you look, what you say and how you say it are all being judged.
  5. If you aren’t successful, don’t lose your temper or get upset. Remember that there are lots of applicants and the fault may not lie with you. Someone else may have had more skills or experience than you. You may want to email your interviewer and politely ask for feedback.
  6. When applying for jobs, always be patient and thorough with each one. Don’t rush applications. Don’t leave it to five minutes to midnight on deadline day to send off your CV and cover letter. I’ve read instances of people applying for up to 90 jobs a week – if you’re doing that, it’s likely you’re just firing off carbon-copy CVs. Do you read junk mail that reads “Dear occupier”? Well then, will an employer want to give you a chance if you demonstrate a junk-mail attitude towards their business?

#sypconf12 – The recap

A note before we start

The following is a recap of my own personal experience of the SYP conference, not a complete overview. I’m  sure other attendees, who went to different seminars, will have similar sorts of blogs. The easiest way is to find these is to check the #sypconf12 tag on Twitter.

All Twitter pages for the people I’ve mentioned, where available, will be listed at the end. All the companies I talk about will have links from their name in the text to their site.

#sypconf12 – The Commencement

Saturday 3rd November was the day of The Society of Young Publishers’ Conference 2012, held at the London College of Communication (naturally). Being a seasider, I hopped on my train at ten to nine in the morning, full of toast and optimism.

I arrived at the college after passing through a labyrinth of subway tunnels painted with shadowy figures, including some chaps who appear to be having a whale of a time staging King Lear:

I know how you feel, guys.

On arrival, the first thing I noticed was that all the girls (and there were a great many girls) were almost all dressed identically to me. Smart work dresses, glitzy pashminas, polished flat shoes. Clearly, we’re all serious about publishing, and have a metaphorical dagger between our teeth.

Three lovely polite SYP conference guides kept traffic flowing at registration. I was given a sticker with my three seminars of choice on it, and directed to that ambrosia of book-lovers, coffee.

But before I reached the urns, I was greeted with a gift bag with contents from various organisations:

1. Canvas bag branded with the SYP logo, containing:

2. Guide for the conference, which this year was appropriately titled Beyond the Book

3. Mastery by Robert Greene, and

4. Climate Change: A Beginner’s Guide by Emily Boyd and Emma Topkins.

In keeping with the theme set by World Book Night‘s work of sharing books, both WBN and other publishers gave free copies of various books to each goodie bag, which is amazingly generous of them. My two were from Profile Books and One World Publications respectively. One of the opening speakers, Julia Kingsford, Chief Executive of WBN, urged us not to judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, I know about climate change and don’t really care for that sort of book; furthermore, since I already had one non-fiction title, it may have been better to pair fiction with non-fiction texts. Obviously, these were given to me without charge, so of course I am grateful and look forward to reading Greene’s tips.

5. Folio Society magazine and Christmas gift guide. More about the Folio Society, later; the magazine (usually costing £6) is a very entertaining read, especially the article about Victoria Sackville-West (mother of Vita) and her vitriolic annotations of Woolf’s Orlando.

6. Information about the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize. Appropriate advertising for a primarily female conference group. I don’t qualify (I don’t yet work in publishing), but you might – more information here.

7. Information about Yudu, digital publishing to platforms such as the iPad. Pictures and videos speak louder than words, and I’d suggest watching the videos on the Yudu site, which will tell you more about this innovation.

The opening lecture, Game Changers, was a good way to ease us into the subject at hand. From the importance of paperbacks in boosting literacy across the UK, to the, quite frankly, bloody excellent digitalised work by Somethin’ Else, we went from then to now and back to a middle ground. What’s better, paperbacks or ebooks? Well, clearly, there’s room for both, and both have merit.

Seminar One: Beautiful Books

The virtues of a good sturdy hardback were more than extolled by Johanna Geary of the Folio Society. She explained that Folio, striving to create “definitive versions,” goes beyond the call of duty to produce beautiful books. I’m telling you, the books they produce should be on permanent display in the home:

“The rise in ebooks,” says Johanna, “has seen the fine book come into its own.” Specially-commissioned illustrations, deliberately-selected typeface and formatting (In Cold Blood, for example, is formatted in the same way as The New Yorker; this is because Capote originally published his novel there in serial format) and careful binding all go towards producing books that are not so much carry-on-the-train rush hour reads so much as collectable and gorgeous gifts. If anyone’s wondering, yes I would quite like their leather-bound, gold-blocked edition of Titus Andronicus, so if anyone’s got a spare £245 lying about

I was keen to go to this seminar because I belong in the middle of a very large Venn diagram. Some people fight the corner of ebooks, and others the traditional book. I do love antiquarian books, especially well-chosen and -designed covers, but I do not see eye-to-eye with those who imbue their books with personality (if you do this for any of your possessions, please either seek help or stop being a pretentious berk). I’m a dog-earer and a spread-out-flat-to-keep-the-pager. Faced with these books, however, I can easily see why you’d be willing to pay out for and treasure them.

Seminar Two: Interactive and Social Reading

The post-lunch seminar was by far, for me, the most interesting point of the day. Jon Ingold of Inkle and Andrew Rhomberg of Jellybooks gave stirring presentations that were like a call to arms for those even remotely curious about adding digital elements for text.

I may be biased because I’d heard of and sometimes used the services of both sites, and the work they do is so exciting. A clearly passionate-about-the-work Andrew was first  up, explaining how Jellybooks was

A candy shop where you can go in and sample ebooks for free!

A tempting philosophy indeed. He spoke of the process he and the team went through to arrive at this candy shop idea. The end goal was to get a format that would make it easy for users to discover new books. He spoke of building things up and stripping things away (leaving out and then adding a Buy button, for example) to arrive at the perfect shop front for browsing and exploring.

Hungry yet?

Unlike the cluttered pages of Amazon, there are no prices, red sale figures or anything else. This might be the only place where you’re encouraged to judge a book by its cover… initially, anyway. Once you get going with your account, Jellybooks will learn your genre preferences and give you selections based on that. Andrew explained that when people enter a bookshop, their behaviour is often to go to the sections they care  about, rather than aimless browsing.

There are some cool deals coming up next year, too, where you get the chance to buy ebooks at half price – but only if a certain number of people also want to. To get to that goal, you must share the offer link, and can monitor the progress throughout the day. If it’s successful, your card is charged and you get your ebooks. If it’s not… well, better share those links more next time, says Andrew playfully!

If you’d like to see Andrew’s slides for yourself, and in the spirit of his philosophy of sharing links, paste into your browser.

Next was Jon, whose passion for what he does is also clear. He prefaces his talk by making us realise that reading is the most demanding of activities – you’ve got “No props, no help.” He also warns us that he hates the word “interactive” (because everything is interactive, “and if not, it’s a rock”), and prefers “responsive”. It goes down well with the group.

Inkle’s Frankenstein interactive novel came barnstorming onto the iPad and iPhone market a few months ago, and if you can, please do download it. Jon says that it’s no coincidence Mary Shelley’s book was Inkle’s first choice:

We quite like metaphors and shit.

Inkle brings books to life. Jon says it’s exciting to know that you can shape the storytelling experience to suit your perceptions. Is Frankenstein a nutter or a genius? You can decide how his character is formed by the selections you make in-novel. There were queries about “crossing a line” with regards to the author’s wishes (my first-year-English-student-detection-senses are tingling!!), but Jon says he wants the theatrical exchange between reader and material to go further, with digital applications “adding value” to the whole experience.

As a side point, Andrew mentioned that the reason there were no women on his team was because all the women he approached turned them down! If either Andrew or Jon want to hire a woman in the future…! *waves hand in the air*

Seminar Three: Beyond the Textbook

I know next to nothing about educational textbooks, but I was interested in how digital literature and learning materials are making their way into classrooms. Andrea Carr, founder of Rising Stars educational publishing, explained that iPad and computer-based learning is becoming more and more integrated into classroom life; then Pedro Moura spoke about how English Language Teaching (ELT) moved towards being digital-only, but explained that cost and accessibility could prevent this. There is always a place, he demonstrated, for the good old textbook.

However, because my interests don’t lie with educational publishing particularly, I didn’t get a whole lot out of the seminar. This is completely my fault and not Andrea’s and Pedro’s – they are both clearly excellent at what they do, and intelligently adaptive to boot. A piece of advice from Andrea to young publishers everywhere, though:

Get in places, do everything you can – make yourself indispensable.

Then I had to leave early, so I didn’t get to attend the closing lecture. Overall, the conference was well-organised, smoothly run, and most importantly full of choice with regards to learning about different sorts of publishing. Do have a look at the companies and people mentioned – they’re right at the core of publishing here and now, and they’re all leading their charges with aplomb.

People to follow

Julia Kingsford

Jon Ingold

Andrew Rhomberg

Trevor Klein (of Somethin’ Else)

Why Pottermore is a wee bit balls

Inevitably, during the course of the Society of Young Publishers’ conference today, the subject of Pottermore was brought up. How could it not have been? With the focus on the digitalisation of books and experimenting how we can respond and input those responses to books, Pottermore was a natural end point for some people.

Twitter user Amanda asked the conference at large:

I’d love to know what everyone at#sypconf12 thinks of the idea of#pottermore and why it’s not as successful as it should’ve been?

I was going to put my thoughts in a reply tweet, but they’re slightly too long. In the interests of saving your tired eyes from too much strain, I’ve streamlined my thoughts as much as possible. Here we go:

  1. It’s just pictures. Yes, they move a bit, but not much. Yes, there are sounds, but only on a repetitive loop. (Stay outside Flourish and Blotts in CoS, for example, and see how much you end up grinding your teeth at the laughter track.) Yes, they’re quite beautiful, but really… so what? That’s not enough compensation for the pitfalls of the rest of the site. Which leads me on to…
  2. We’ve already got the films. My immediate reaction, once I’d seen the extent to which Pottermore actually stretched, was, “Oh. Well, if I’d not seen the films, and been a bit younger, I’d be impressed…” There is little point providing visual context to the books when you can just stick on a DVD and let Alan Rickman do what he does best (that’s sneer and raise his eyebrow, in case you’d not worked that out).
  3. The site is as clunky as a goat in platform shoes. Click to zoom, click to zoom again, accidentally click and get zoomed out again, try and click on an object that you’ve been asked to click on and accidentally zoom out even further – then back in – ad. nauseam. Yawn. Let’s not mention how tricky it is to brew potions, especially if you’re using a trackpad.
  4. The time between updates is far too long. The product isn’t good enough to make me want to keep checking back, either. I’ve been a Potter fan for eleven years, and I’ve a reasonable attention span – if they can’t keep me, that’s probably not a good sign. Add in the fact that the public opening was delayed and delayed – not a good way to run an ebook shop, however prettily-decorated (which is essentially what it is).
  5. The improvements made between Beta and live were not really good enough. Yes, I’m aware it’s a completely free service, and I should be grateful. But air is free as well, and I’d rather breathe good-quality air than smog. What irks me is the sheer volume of hype that was built up around it, and then it turned out to be a big boring clunky mess. Pottermore really hasn’t delivered.

For anyone who’s interested, yes I’m on the site (I was a Beta user). There was one really great bit – the Sorting. And, yes, I am a Slytherin.

What the Dickens? From webpage to print…?

This is just a quick post to promote the crowdfunding push to get What the Dickens? magazine off the web and into print. At the moment, I myself have very little money, and so can’t donate until some time towards the end of their fundraising. I just wanted to list 3 reasons why you should give WtD any amount you can:

  • It’s a brilliant magazine. Go and read it for yourself. Fiction, reviews, poems, essays, photographs – it’s very diverse and exciting
  • It’s a new venture that gives equal opportunities to established and new writers. I don’t need to tell you how much getting into print means for all involved, both professionally and personally
  • The team behind it are committed, endlessly inventive and (from the interaction I’ve had with a couple of them) total sweethearts.

The What the Dickens? fundraising page is here. Check out their incentives too, and enjoy a sense of accomplishment at helping this new venture to realisation.




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