Monday, 25 June 2012

Caroline Lawrence Competes for your attention!

Caroline at Melody Ranch
Caroline Lawrence will be known to many of you as the hugely successful author of the Roman Mysteries books.  Recently however she has turned her attention to the Wild West and her second P.K. Pinkerton Mystery: The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse has just been published by Orion Books.  A historical mystery series these books take us close to Caroline's home state of California transporting in the 1860s.  Here she talks about moving away from Ancient Rome, the new series and how her inspiration.

When you first began writing your Roman Mysteries what was your inspiration and did you have the whole series mapped out?  My light-bulb moment of inspiration for the Roman Mysteries was ‘Nancy Drew in Ancient Rome’ so I always knew it would be a series, like the Nancy Drew books. But series arcs were starting to come in with TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Babylon 5, so I decided to give my series an arc too. My publisher Orion bought six books on the strength of book 1 and blurbs for five possible others. About two years into the series, when Orion said they wanted another 6, I thought of doing a final set of six to make an 18 book series. I was reading Patrick O’Brian’s magnificent Aubrey-Maturin saga at the time and thought it would be hubristic to write more books in my series than there were in his. In the end, the series ended up being 17 books plus two volumes of short stories that fill in the gaps.

Map of Ancient Ostia
How long before you wrote the last Roman Mysteries book did you know that the series would continue with Roman Mystery Scrolls?  My original idea was a young adult spin-off series called The Flavian Trilogy where I would follow the fortunes of beautiful identical twin boys separated in infancy. Readers will know who I mean! They discover each other during the reign of Domitian and lots of mix-ups and anguish ensues. But my publishers found it too different in tone and content to be a follow-up to the Roman Mysteries.

At a loss for what to do next, I canvassed school librarians. Almost all of them pleaded with me to write something for boys aged 5 to 7, a gap in the market as far as they were concerned, so I thought I might try writing for that age group. I often say that this new younger series set in ancient Rome has ‘more poo and less blood.’

What do you think children in the Roman period were reading, if anything, and do you like to imagine that they really did spend their time investigating mysteries?  If children were lucky enough to go to school or have a tutor, they would be learning Virgil by heart. Homer, too, when they got older. Sadly, I doubt if any of them spent time solving intriguing mysteries. Pliny the Younger might have been one of the few.

The Scrolls are a great concept, how many scrolls have you ever been lucky enough to read?  The only scrolls I have read were parchment scrolls of the Tanach, the Jewish Bible. I did my master’s thesis on a thousand-year-old parchment codex (booklet) of the Book of Esther from the Old Testament written in Syriac, a Christian version of Aramaic.
How you decide on the titles of your books, for example the forthcoming Roman Mystery Scrolls: The Poisoned Honey Cake?  I always find titles challenging so I usually go with my publisher’s choice. But if I were a kid I would totally read a book called The Poisoned Honey Cake. 

Do you know how many Scrolls there will be or will you write them until you run out of ideas?  There will be at least four and if they are a success I’ll definitely write at least another four.

Do you want to write any books set in Ancient Greece or other periods of the Ancient World?   Ancient Greece doesn’t really call me because I’ve already referenced plenty of Greek culture, myth and history in my Roman Mysteries! Also it’s not a very women-friendly period of history. And I like my spunky cross-dressing females!

How did you manage the switch and now the parallel writing from the world of the Ancient Romans to the Wild West?  Pretty easily apart from the fact that I knew more about the history of first century Rome than I did about my own native country! But the attractions are the same: deep immersion in the period via travel, films, TV series, books, festivals, re-enactment events, etc…

There are quite a few similarities between the P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries and the Roman Mysteries. Both series are thoroughly researched with lots of facts, artefacts and exciting plots. The stories don’t sugar coat but neither do they show how bad things could really be. My characters in both series are a mixture of made-up people and historical figures. Both series will last about two and a half years; instead of the reign of Titus in the Roman Mysteries, the P.K. Pinkerton mysteries will take place during the “reign of Twain” in Virginia City!
Map of Virginia City

What was the attraction of the Wild West?  After the ancient world it must have been a big change in scene!  It wasn’t that different! In many ways, 1st century Ostia and 19th century Virginia City are very similar. They are both literate, horse-powered societies, civilized but surrounded by barbarism, and the medical acumen is about the same! Ostia in AD 80 had a population of about 20,000 and was about the same size as Virginia City, Nevada in 1862. That means it is an urban setting but not an overwhelming one. You can walk around both towns, as my husband’s marvellous maps show!

Another attraction was the huge vein of marvellous primary sources and literature available to me. Also the fact that I can see the past (thanks to stereoscopic photographs, a new invention) and hear it (thanks to sheet music).

One thing I’ve discovered is how horribly politically incorrect the Wild West was. It often makes ancient Rome look like a vicar’s tea-party. My period has drinking, smoking, spitting, shooting, whoring, fighting and hoaxing. But of course that’s half the fun.

What made you change the name of the series?  Was it that children were not aware of the wild west and to have a named character was more attractive?  To children born in the last dozen years, “Western” means nothing! To many adults it brings up images of cowboys, cattle drives, lassoes and bleached cow-skulls in Arizona deserts. My books contain none of those elements. They are urban westerns.

We thought that naming the series after a character – even a mysterious and unfamiliar one called “P.K. Pinkerton” – might work better. We have yet to see!

Sugar Loaf Mountain
 I love the new series, including the look of the books.  It is fun and refreshingly different yet you manage to maintain your flair for writing a gripping and pacey story.  Where do you get the energy from?  Thank you! Energy comes from the nice comments like that! Also from emails and letters from fans. But mostly from the fact that I have a fantastic riverside flat in the heart of London, no kids at home and a wonderfully supportive husband who cooks for me. I recharge my batteries by going for long walks along the river with music (or audiobooks) and also by seeing lots of movies, and by meeting friends for coffee. 

I know you are snowed under with writing commitments so I'll keep this short but I am sure readers would love to know how many books you write in a year and how they can get started on the road to be as prolific or as successful as you are!  I guess I write about two books a year. I have three tips: discipline, discipline, discipline! You have got to make yourself sit down and get something on paper and resist the siren call of a thousand other distractions. It is still a battle for me, so don’t be discouraged if it is a battle for you, too.

I have put lots of other writing tips about character and plot structure up on my website. 

Finally, can you think of a great COMPETITION question for our readers? 
“If you could choose one day in history to visit in a Time Machine (a go-anywhere invisible bubble protecting you from arrows etc and them from germs), when and where would it be, and why?”

To be in with a chance of winning a signed copy of Caroline's latest book please send entries to by Monday 9th July, please remember to include your name and address.  Answers will be posted here, as a blog and winners will be notified by Friday 13th July.

Caroline, thank you so much for guesting on the Armadillo Blog!

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

National Refugee Week in Books

Did you know that this week is National Refugee Week?

Such an important event in the world at the moment, the plight of refugees is sometimes forgotten because it is, sadly, so common. However we should, for this week at least give it some thought and what better way to that - whilst introducing it to children in school, at home, in public libraries - than through books?

Published this week by Frances Lincoln is Azzi In Between by Sarah Garland.

Azzi is a young girl, who with her family, is in danger. He and her parents are forced to leave the home that they know and love, fleeing to another country where the language and the people are foreign. It is with courage and resourcefulness that Azzi copes with the move and the dramatic changes wrought in her life. She is young, perhaps it is is easier to cope when you are young, easier to adapt perhaps. Yet no matter how settled Azzi becomes she is constantly troubled by those left behind, in particular her grandmother.

The situation that Azzi and her family find themselves in is far from unusual but it may be shocking to the children reading this book. Luckily Sarah Garland is an experienced author and illustrator using her skills to treat the subject with sensitivity.

This is a book not only for those children who will, hopefully, never find themselves made refugees but it is also for the refugees. It is a message of hope, it is sensitive, it is positive, it is beautiful. If you feel moved by the plight of refugees then I would urge you to look at this book.

If you want to teach children about the realities of being a refugee then read and share this book. If you want to read a masterful and well written story, read this book.

If you read nothing else this week, read Azzi In Between and think about those who may be less fortunate than you but who always have hope.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Hooked on Vampies...?

Bridget Carrington, Armadillo reviewer, reviews Anne Rooney, Aramadillo reviewer's latest series, The Vampire Dawn, published by Ransom Publishing. 

A new series of seven very short (70-odd pages) novels for teenagers hooked on vampires but not on books. 

We are told to read Die Now or Live Forever first as it introduces us to the characters who will feature in five of the remaining novels; teenagers on a camping holiday in Hungary, where they are bitten by mosquitoes which carry vampirism.  From there the books can be read in any order, as a summary of the first story prefaces each subsequent episode.

One of the seven stories, Bloodsucking for Beginners, is an instruction manual for those who have become vampires, and it fits in well after either the first book or the last story, as Ignace, the centuries old vampire who, in Die Now, finds the five newly vamped teenagers, concludes that first episode by telling the new vampires that there’s a lot to learn.  But the last story concerns a girl who hasn’t been vamped – or so we think – who might need the manual in the future…

In Bloodsucking ... there are chapters on the A-Z of vampire life, true and false and FAQ's, rehearsing much of the vampire-related information in the novels.  More information about the places, people and science in the books can be found at Vampire Dawn.

I think this is the best book of the series – cleverly constructed and filled with sardonic, tongue in cheek humour as new vampires are told what to do and more importantly what not to do – for example:


       …If you have been staked, and are able to do so, call your mentor. 

       A paramedic de-staking team will be sent to help you.  DO NOT try

       remove a stake yourself.  If you can’t get hold of your mentor, call

       the Helpline on the local number you have been given.

Despite this humour, serious issues emerge in each book; from Asperger’s to bulimia and even self-harming. Questions of ethics in science, and teenage dilemmas such as relationships with family and friends as well as with girl/boyfriends, sex and sexuality pervade the texts. Indeed we might conclude that Rooney uses becoming a vampire as an allegory for going through adolescence, which at the time can seem just as confusing and life-changing.

Readers need to be aware that this series is not to be confused with a full length novel of the same name by a different author, nor is the series novel In Cold Blood that classic by Truman Capote!
Anne Rooney is a regular reviewer for Armadillo Magazine and we wish her every success with this new series – ed.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Celebrating Football Books with Euro 2012

Reading the Game

Top ten kids’ football books for Euro 2012

It’s nearly time for Euro 2012 where lots of people watch lots of football. And that – according to recent research – is a problem. During major sporting tournaments academic performance can drop among a large proportion of school children. With that in mind, I have drawn up a list of books that should appeal to children during Euro 2012.

One: The Official ITV Sports Euro 2012 Fan’s Guide by Keir Radnedge

What looks like a standard guide to a football tournament is – in fact – written by one of the great football writers around today. Someone who knows his stuff. This guide has features on all the teams, key players, venues, a little about the host countries and the all-important score chart to fill in as the tournament progresses. Balanced on the arm of the sofa as the games are on the TV, it is full of bite-sized unintimidating chunks of text for vital information before, during and after games.

Two: Football Shorts by Tom Watt

An inspired idea from Tom Watt – writer, actor and broadcaster – this is a selection of football stories written both by children’s authors and well-known footballers. Children’s favourites, such as Mal Peet and Terry Deary, are bound together with Vincent Kompany, Manchester City’s key player and England international Faye White. All the authors’ proceeds go to the National Literacy Trust.

Three: Growing Up Fast by Theo Walcott

There are lots of footballer autobiographies. Some are good. Some are awful. Increasingly, these books are moving away from raw-language accounts of games, friendships and enemies into more positive stories aimed at children. Footballers saying how they worked hard and made the right decisions to help them become a professional footballer. Growing Up Fast is a book like that. Well written. Positive. And about a player who has yet to blot his copy book with bad behaviour on or off the pitch.

Four: Keeper by Mal Peet

This is the greatest children’s football novel ever written. For older readers, it is the story a fictional Brazil goalkeeper, who narrates his life to a sports journalist. But it is no normal story: it is an account of a goalkeeper brought up in the rainforest, who was trained by ghosts, in a world very different to that which readers will expect.

Five: The Usborne Complete Soccer School by Bob Bond

There are lots of books about how to play football. This is one is top of the league. Usborne books are among the best designed, using short pieces of text and simple photographs and illustrations to explain football technique. Children read books like this to become better footballers. So, not only are they reading, but they are also improving our chances of winning Euro 2024!

Six: Jake Cake and the Football Beast by Michael Broad

There are five Jake Cake volumes. They are short books with three stories in each. Easy books for a parent to read to their children at bedtime or for a child beginning chapter book reads on their own. Jake is a fantasist who meets vampires, pirates and, in this case, a beast that plays football. This is the kind of book that a football-loving boy might be attracted to, then will read the other four books: that is, the kind of book that can spark a life of reading.

Seven: Do Goalkeepers Wear Tiaras? by Helena Pielichaty

This is the first book in the well-written football fiction series, Girls FC. It is about two girls who want to play football, but there is no opportunity for them in a boys’ dominated football world. Until they meet a female professional footballer who offers to become their coach. Pielichaty has based a lot of this series on the experiences of her daughter who played football into her adulthood, finishing her career at West Bromwich Albion.

Eight: Match Annual

This is the football book that most boys have read. I go into hundreds of schools a year and meet tens of thousands of children. They love this. It comes from the football magazine, Match, that is equally popular. They like Match because it is a lively combination of images collaged with text. It’s funny. It’s irreverent. It has statistics and lists and fact. Great for the less confident readers to help them start to define themselves as readers.

Nine: FIFA World Records 2012

Football fans love facts. Reluctant readers like short chunks of text and heavily illustrated pages. They also like a book that does not need reading from page one to the end. A linear read is off-putting, because you can fail to finish it. This format is ideal, because you cannot fail. But the book can’t look childish. This book does all that. It has facts, features and photographs that can be picked at and enjoyed week after week.

Ten: Final Whistle by Dan Freedman

Dan Freedman’s Jamie Johnson series is one of the two best-selling football series for children in the UK. It started with Kick Off and ends – this summer – with Final Whistle. Together the books tell the story of the eponymous series hero, who goes from his local team to playing in the World Cup. Freedman writes these stories with an insider’s knowledge. He knows many top players and worked for the FA.

Tom Palmer writes children’s football novels for Puffin Books. His new series launches with Black Op, a spy t

Monday, 4 June 2012

A Spooky Thrill

Witchy Liz’s spell for a spooky YA thriller (shamelessly stolen from a recipe by James Dawson): A dash of Mean Girls A sprinkling of the Craft Essence of The Crucible One creepy Yorkshire wood A murder (or two) of ravens Blend together (in your witchey cauldron) with a dollop of dark humour and an exciting new voice in YA fiction. James Dawson has cast quite a spell with his debut YA novel Hollow Pike. It is a chilling tale of witchiness, set in the (perhaps even more terrifying) cut-throat world of secondary school. Lis London moves to Hollow Pike to make a new start and leave the bullies from her last school behind her. But when she arrives she finds something scary and impossible – the same stream she’s seen in her recurring nightmare where a mystery figure tries to drown her. The new school turns out to be another sort of nightmare as Lis comes up against Queen Bee Laura Rigg who thrives on making people miserable. Is it better to be with Laura than to be her victim? Or will Lis risk Laura’s torment by choosing to hang out with the ‘freaks’, Kitty, Delilah and Jack, who are rumoured to be witches? Soon enough events in Hollow Pike take a murderous turn, and Lis isn’t sure if she can trust anyone. I love a ‘witch’ tale, but always find it much spookier when they are rooted in ‘real’ witch history, like one of my favourite books –Julie Hearn’s The Merrybegot. The idea of terrified girls, social outcasts and local wise-women being forced to stand trial and confess devilish activity before being executed is so horribly frightening because it really happened. So I was delighted to find that Hollow Pike is steeped in witch folklore, with quotations from The Malleus Malificarum – a treatise on witches written in 1486 and used as a ‘handbook’ by witchfinders. The town of Hollow Pike is haunted by the story of the executions centuries ago of young girls who were thought to be witches. There is a paranormal edge to the story as well, but the main message of the book, for me, is that it is what humans are capable of that is the most frightening thing of all. This is brought home by the parallel story of Lis’s nightmares with the real-life nightmares she experiences at school at the hands of Laura Rigg. Laura’s tactics of spreading rumours and cruel comments, while at the same time remaining the beautiful and intriguing ruler of the school, make Lis feel powerless to fight back – much like the helpless sleeper in the grip of a terrifying dream. It is only when she sides with the ‘freaks’ and finds real friendship that she feels she can get revenge. These aspects of the story had me thinking of Mean Girls and (perhaps more) The Craft – with the idea of social outcasts drawn towards the supernatural. But the book is far more than this for two reasons: James Dawson’s frighteningly accurate knowledge of the teenage mind, and a heavy dose of dark humour. The dialogue of the teenage characters ensures the story is grounded in real life at all times, even if otherworldly things were going on, and make the world of Hollow Pike easy to relate to. This was particularly important in the romance storyline between Lis and lovely Danny Marriott (imagine Aaron Johnson in a rugby kit. I did. Frequently). Their initially awkward and unsure encounters – including texts and a date at Pizza Hut – provided touching moments of reality among the scariness. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy the scariness – the book made me jump, wary of turning off the light, and gave me a slight phobia of birds, which only the best horror stories do. (Oh and I confidently thought I’d worked out the mystery and was ever so completely wrong – curse you, James Dawson!)