Thursday, 29 November 2012

Prehistoric or real? The dinoasurs...

In the last installment of short blogs from Simon Barrett thoughts turn to prehistory, dinoasurs and science...

Dinosaurs are soooo prehistoric.  Z however stands for Zenith.  Geneflow and the mad scientist Samantha Josephs have accelerated grown dinosaurs from fossil material, engineered and augmented them with human capabilities and computer technology to make the perfect killing machines.  There is only one problem ... 13 year old Adam Adler.

The Z. series is a great trilogy, building up from one adventure to an international conspiracy.  It begins with Z.Rex and Adam’s first encounter with a living, breathing T-Rex with the capability to disarm a bomb.  Together they team up to rescue Adam’s Dad held captive by Geneflow.  In Z.Raptor Adam is marooned on a pacific island and part of a Geneflow game: hyper evolved dinosaurs with the minds of killers versus Adam and a handful of survivors.  While Adam is looking forward to a normal life, Geneflow have other plans.  Z.Apocalypse is a global emergency and once again Adam with the help of Zed needs to end Geneflow, before the world destroys itself in a Third World War.

Constant throughout the series is the relationship between Adam and his father Bill Adler.  Adam and Bill usually end up saving one another, motivated by their love for one another.  This takes on greater resonance in Z.Apocalypse, when Adam encounters the clone of his father.  Bill’s clone on one level should have no feelings towards Adam, but despite the technology and the science, something of the human spirit continues to survive and saves Adam.  Similarly with the dinosaurs, something of Adam’s spirit is passed on to them.  It is this spirit wanting freedom and valuing loyalty and friendship that fights against Geneflow’s desire to control and command.

Finally, another important question in the series, is who can you trust.  When you have the means to create the perfect killing machine that is immune to all conventional modern weaponry then there are too many vested interests.  Scientists, soldiers and politicians aid Adam and Bill in their quest to destroy Geneflow, but do they really want to destroy this technology or do they want to obtain this knowledge for their own purposes?

The Z. series has been a thrilling read as Adam is pursued around the world by mad scientists and over-sized reptiles.  In so doing, the author Steve Cole explores some important ideas about family, friendship and trust that will means this trilogy deserves to be reread and will continue to appeal to future readers.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Eon, Eona and Dragons

Short blog number 2 from Simon Barrett on Alison Goodman's titles Eon and Eona.

For me Eon by Alison Goodman was one of the best books of 2008.  It seemed to create a whole new cosmology drawing inspiration from Imperial China, in which the reader follows the struggles of a young girl, Eon, disguising her gender to become a Dragoneye, someone who can control the energy of a spiritual Dragon.  Eon more than achieves her aims and becomes the Mirror Dragoneye.  Joy turns to despair as a brutal rebellion usurps the Emperor’s throne and turns Eon’s world upside down.

I was therefore looking forward to Eona, the sequel to Eon, in which the Lord Dragoneye is recognised as a Lady Dragoneye, helping the rebels to fight and restore the rightful heir to the throne.  I suppose, like many sequels in which the heroes have fallen so far and the forces gathering against them so powerful, it is a dark and doubtful start to the story.  The sense of mistrust and betrayal heavily weighs on the main characters of Eona, the courtesan Dela and Eona’s bodyguard Ryko.  This lack of shared fate seems to dampen the story, whilst perhaps emphasising Eona’s solitude.  The author, Alison Goodman, also adds complexity to the cosmology of the Dragons to slowly reveal the true relationship between the Imperial Throne, the Dragoneyes and the spiritual powers of the Dragons.  Eona gathers pace, building up to the ultimate showdown between heaven and earth.

Alison Goodwin’s decision to write a duology is perhaps unusual in the current world of children’s literature.  The main story of the two books is straight-forward, however it is the complexity of the characters that enrich the story and is what I particularly enjoyed.  Two books however does not seem enough.  Without giving away the ending I had hoped for a happier ending.  This is however the world of fantasy and not fairy stories.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Thoughts on B R Collins

In the first in a series of 3 short blogs Armadillo Reviewer Simon Barrett shares his thoughts on B R Collins Maze Cheat (Bloomsbury).

The separation of reality and virtual reality is perhaps increasingly difficult, especially for young people today, whose interactions seamlessly move between their physical surroundings and a world on Facebook.  Gaming and virtual reality in particular has been a theme taken up by several children’s authors, including Alan Gibbons and by B.R. Collins in her recent book Maze Cheat.

Maze Cheat imagines a humanity retreating from a post-apocalyptic age of acid rain eating away the tarmac into the Maze, an interactive computer game.  Watched by everyone, Gamerunners fight, avoid traps and battle with monsters to earn kudos and money.  It is tempting to cheat, and Ario is the best Cheat there is.  Ario writes computer code to give Gamerunners infinite health and upgraded weapons, making them... invincible.  But the Maze is no ordinary computer game, something even the best Cheat can’t anticipate.

There is much about Maze Cheat that is probably conventional to young readers familiar with online games.  It is therefore the characters in the book that makes the story engaging with much of it taking place in a claustrophobic tank shop, where the cheats work, live and sleep.  Much of the tension is on what each of the characters know, but do not say to one another, and the hidden personal histories that suggests there is a shared fate or destiny.

I wonder whether books can fully capture a gamer’s experience or use some of the devices of Second life as a literary tool in a story.  Reading a book like Maze Cheat however reiterates the importance of characters in making a story a great story.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Ribblestrop with Andy Mulligan

A short q & a between Andy Mulligan and Louise Ellis-Barrett talking about Ribblestrop, how it cam about, Andy's inspiration, favourite characters and more besides.  Read on to see inside the mind of an author ...

Thanks to Andy for taking the time to answer these questions for us.

I remember when the first Ribblestrop title, Ribblestrop, came out and I was both bemused and intrigued by the title which made me even more certain that I wanted to read it.  Was this the intention when you devised the name of the school?
My publisher chose the title, thinking the word was strong and intriguing. I loved the word because I used to spend time in the Ribble valley.  I don’t know where the “strop” came from.

Did you go to a school with a strange name, is that where the inspiration for the story came from?
No. My schools all had very sensible, nice names. The inspiration for ‘Ribb’ comes from many places…I will come back to that, I’m sure.

Did you go to a school with such a retrograde group of characters?
I think we’re surrounded by saints, demons and the inbetween all our lives. Yes, of course my childhood associates were strange – school shoves us through a very crude strainer, mincing us up with the best and worst of people. I loved passionately at school, and I hated with equal vim.

Could you explain a little more about how you created the characters, particularly the pupils?
The pupils are all based on children I’ve taught. Writing is theft: there are children in the schools I’ve taught in who have almost waved flags: “I belong in a book!” It’s a great way of getting revenge, sometimes, and paying homage too.

The books are both funny and a brilliant adventure, readers truly don't know what is going to happen from one line to the next let alone from one page to the next.  Is it difficult to write with such pace?
No. The writing comes easily, and sitting down to write Ribblestrop is always a joy – it’s like playing a very wild game, and the characters often surprise me. I am very, very fond of them, too, so animating them and giving them things to feel and say is a joyous process. What’s difficult is controlling the narrative, and hauling back into a manageable form.

Do you plan the story in advance and have it mapped in front of you?  In fact did you plan further ahead than just book 1 or has it grown itself?
The Ribblestrop books were always conceived as a trilogy, and I did have an ending in mind. In the event, the ending of ‘Ribblestrop, Forever!’ is radically different from the one I planned. The characters do not respond to strict planning. I do draw a map, but the characters tear it up very quickly.

Without revealing to readers how the story unfolds can you see more stories emerging from Ribblestrop or will you move on to new schools and new projects?
New projects, for sure. The ending of ‘Ribblestrop, Forever!’ is triumphant and I don’t want to try and better it.

Did you have crazy teachers, exciting field trips and mad police officers during your time at school?
No. Some of the stranger things that go on at Ribblestrop happened to friends of mine…I do steal ideas. For example, a close friend was lost with his classmates up a tunnel at his school in India – a young teacher mis-read the map and led the whole lot of them into the darkness. A train came, and they survived by pressing themselves to the rocky walls. If someone tells you that story you have a duty to steal it, and put it in a book, I think.

What is it that keeps you writing?
It’s very enjoyable. It’s fulfilling. It’s one of the only things I can do. I have friends who can play rugby and learn languages and surf…I get enormous pleasure from the rather solitary activity of writing. And I’m now in the very lucky position of people asking me to write.

Do you love to play with language?  I ask this question because the language in Ribblestrop, in fact in all your books is both powerful and engaging.  It is on a perfect level for children and yet as an adult I found it entirely engaging and at times challenging too.
I’m not sure I play with language, but I do enjoy it and I love trying to communicate. I don’t speak any other language: English is my mother-tongue, and I enjoy the attempt at precision. I admire Dennis Potter – a TV playwright who dominated the drama landscape all through the seventies up to his death in the nineties. His seemingly effortless command of words – the right words to express such fine nuances of meaning and such remarkable experiences – used to take my breath away. He didn’t show off. He found the right words, and enjoyed himself. That is definitely what I try to do. I can’t stand sloppy English, and I can’t stand attention seeking English either.

Reading these books I imagine an author who loves adventure, is slightly mad, a little bit outrageous and loves to laugh.  How would you describe yourself?
Solitary, nervous, ill-tempered and inconsistent.

If you were to go on a quest which of your characters would you take with you and why?
Anjoli. He is my favourite orphan. He’s based on a house-boy in India who used to serve me breakfast every morning when I taught in a school in the Himalayas. He’d be great company and would have every practical skill known to questing. When I got tired and angry he’d take the blame for everything, too.

Do you have a favourite character and were they based on anyone you have known, know now or are they purely a figment of your (possibly slightly crazy) imagination?
If Anjoli is my favourite orphan, then Miles is my favourite non-orphan. He’s based on a psychotic boy I taught a few years ago, and I have to say that I found him an absolute monster for a while. Then something cracked, and I saw what a fine, loyal, anxious soul he was, and he brought such life to the classroom. He was all fire!

Who were the authors that inspired you as a boy and who are the authors that inspire you now?  Do you still read children's books?
I don’t read children’s books, because I am always worried I’m going to like them more than my own attempts, and feel undermined. That may sound paranoid, but it’s the truth. I re-read stuff, hungrily, particularly when I’m in the middle of writing something. I constantly go back to Dickens, and I constantly re-read the travel books of Paul Theroux. Those writers have an intelligence and skill that inspire me. I feel dwarfed by them, but they make me want to try harder.

What advice could you give to our young readers inspired by your books?
Do you mean for writing, or for living? I have no advice at all for living, but for writing I’d pass on the one comment someone once made to me, at just the right time. He urged me to just sit down and write. That sounds a bit simple-minded, but what he meant was cut through the excuses for not getting down to it. ‘Oh, I’m tired… oh, I haven’t had an idea yet. Oh, I just need to check my email…Oh, there’s no hurry – I can do that chapter later.’ 
Close the door. Sit at your desk. Turn off your phone. Write.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Julie Cross on her Tempest

Read on for Bridget Carrington’s e-interview with Julie Cross, the author of Tempest (Macmillan)

Hi Julie! 
I’ve really enjoyed reading Tempest, and I’m sure other readers would love to know more about how you came to write it.  Was literature or film a particular inspiration for the time-travel scenario? Groundhog Day seems to have been an influence.  What about films like Back to the Future and It’s a Wonderful Life (or Stern’s original short story) – it seems to me that Jackson is trying to put things right/prevent things happening like George?
I’m a child of the eighties, so Back to the Future was a huge part of my time travel knowledge. But I was mostly fascinated with the concept of having a character travel back to revisit moments in their own life so that would lean more toward, It’s a Wonderful Life. And Jackson’s growth through out Tempest is a result of those moments of self-reflection…so basically, I’ve used Time Travel to force Jackson to see his past from a different perspective.

How do you keep track of moving between times, and the events which Jackson sees/gets involved with?
I make a lot of lists and charts and notes, but it seems that I do that for other people more so than myself. I tend to remember a lot of the details without having to look it up. This surprised me, but I guess it’s Jackson’s life and his memories have become so familiar to me, it’s not much different than remembering my own life and my own past.

Is the book about identity:  in family, relationships, clone/human-being
or about integrity and morality?
I would say, above all, Tempest is about difficult choices and I think that integrity and morality play a huge part in the choices Jackson eventually makes, but so does love and family. Jackson shows tremendous strength and growth by the end of Tempest, but he is still all heart, I think if presented with the choice to save Holly or his dad or save twenty other people, he’d save Holly or his dad, no question. If he had to choose between saving Holly or his dad at the end of the book, I think he’d die trying to save both. He shows integrity and morality but he’s impulsive and emotionally driven and too self-centred to think about the lives of strangers above his loved ones. This factor is what makes Jackson human and relatable to almost all of us.   

What was your reasoning behind Jackson’s dad?  At first he seems so cold and calculating, but Jackson gradually discovers the real man behind the CIA agent
Jackson also discovers about his mother: she is revealed as a loving, and loved, person
Jackson’s dad has a lot of secrets that I can’t reveal here because it will spoil Vortex, but I can tell you that he truly loves Jackson and Courtney. After losing Eileen, Kevin Meyer, was completely devastated but there were two children that needed him and he knew that Eileen wanted them to be with him and he knew he was the best person to take care of them because he already loved them. After losing Courtney, Jackson’s dad grows distant because he’s so afraid of losing Jackson. Some people hold on tighter in those situations and others slowly back away. But he never backs away from protecting Jackson and from keeping him physically safe. When Jackson finally does know the truth about his dad, this gives Kevin renewed strength to not take any time he has with his son for granite.

Reading the topics referred to in Tempest makes me wonder if you have a particular interest in mutation, sci-fi medical adaptation or ethics?
I am interested in the sci-fi medical adaptations, but ethics truly fascinates me. I love presenting concepts that really don’t have an exact right or wrong answer. There is so much gray area in life and you learn more and more about this the older you get. It really comes down to your beliefs and your views on life and most of us are unable to make choices without allowing them to be influenced by our own personal experiences. We can’t shed our best no matter how much we want to. We can choose to be nothing like our parents but we’ve made that choice because we knew our parents. It’s such a complex subject with a very simple foundation.
Why did you kill off Jackson’s sister before the story begins?  Were you wanting to show Jackson coming to terms with his own inability to cope with her illness and death?
Losing Courtney changed Jackson, it changed his dad and the relationship they have with each other. Jackson hasn’t fully grieved Courtney’s death. He’s suffering from the guilt of being the one to survive and not being brave enough to say goodbye when she was still alive. I needed Jackson to have this baggage because it shaped the choices that he made before the book opens, the way he’s stays somewhat distant from everyone, even Holly whom he’s just beginning to realize that he might be in love with. Jackson tries his best to remove himself from situations that would insert responsibility and potential for failure…or more guilt. This isn’t hard for a rich kid from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to do. But when Holly is shot and Jackson is stuck in 2007, he’s swimming in guilt and has to decided what he’s going to do about it.

Was it difficult to write the ending, because of Jackson’s selfless act? Did you ever consider an alternative ending?
My editor was the one who first suggested, before Tempest was finished, that Jackson should have to be apart from Holly at the end of the book. I immediately hated him for about five minutes and then I saw in my head exactly how this would happen and I knew it was where Jackson’s character was headed from page one. What Jackson does is the ultimate sacrifice. He leaves Holly with no sadness or knowledge of his existence at all, but has to keep all those memories himself. In my opinion, Jackson should have done this in 2007 with the younger Holly. He should have stayed away from her and not gotten her involved but he was still selfishly in love at that point and realizing that he just can’t be without her. It takes more grief and growth for his love to change to the selfless kind.

Will we meet him Adam again?  It would be a pity not to!
There are many ways Adam can jump back into the story so I can assure you, he’ll find a way back into Jackson’s life.

On your website you refer to a playlist: did you always use music to create an atmosphere/ease the writing, or did that develop with writing Tempest?

The Tempest playlist came after the story was finished, but I do get song inspiration as I write. I don’t have to listen to music while writing, though. I’m pretty flexible in that area.

You also have created non-book-based add-ons, e.g. Holly’s Diary on Facebook: how important are non-book elements for authors when writing now?
Holly’s Diary was very important for me because it helped so much with writing Vortex as far the dates and times and where Holly was in the Spring/Summer of 2009. But even more so, writing Holly and her boyfriend drama and all her quirks that come with graduating high school and starting her adult life provided such a relief to my writer’s brain when it had become scrambled with time travel facts and data and multiple timelines. Plus, it’s nice to write from a female point of view for a change. I don’t know if all writers do these types of non-book elements or if they are asked to do them once the book is out, but it’s the internet and book blogs and e-books that are driving extras like these and I think it’s a wonderful thing. I love the idea of having the opportunity to provide story elements and character insight that I don’t always have room for or a good place for in the actual Tempest books.  

Can you give us any clues to the second in the series, Vortex, and Holly’s future role in the trilogy?
In Vortex, Jackson throws himself into his new role as a Tempest agent. He’s determined to be calculated, fierce and wear his hard agent shell at all times. Of course, this can only last so long before this becomes too difficult. I can also tell you that Jackson does have a couple of female co-workers in Vortex but I can’t tell you whether they’re girlfriend material for Jackson or not.
I can’t spoil it. I wish I could but that wouldn’t be any fun, would it? But of course Holly will find a way back into the story at least in some form, just as Adam will and Courtney. I can tell you that the direction Holly’s character goes is something I envisioned long before I had any idea what would happen to Jackson after Tempest. So, in other words, seeds have been planted in Tempest with clues to Holly’s future.

You’ve created websites such as TeamTEENauthor and ARC relay. Do you think that self-publicity is particularly important for twenty-first century authors? 
I’m not really sure how much the self-publicity I’ve done has actually benefited Tempest book sales, but it’s very important to me, as an author of teen fiction, to be able to speak to my target audience, which is teen readers. It’s important for me to be as assessable to my fans as possible. Plus, writing can be a lonely job and self-promotion activities allow me to meet other authors like myself and to talk to other fans of young adult literature. 

Very many thanks Julie.  I’m really looking forward to Vortex!

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Ways of Seeing ...

A blog written by Armadillo reviewer Bridget Carrington offering food for thought about shorter books ...  
Sometimes shorter books are a lot deeper and more thought-provoking than megabig books. There’s certainly no shortage of angst and drama in the 175 pages of Diana Hendry’s The Seeing (Bodley Head), set in a 1950s seaside town and focussing on the intense friendship between teenager Lizzie – from an aspirational middle-class home – and Natalie, the product of a single-parent family, with a mother who invites ‘uncles’ back to her house. Natalie’s brother has both physical and learning disabilities, but seems to have second-sight, with an ability to see qualities and faults in others which others don’t.

Set less than a decade from the end of World War II, this intense novel shows how Natalie is obsessed with LONs (Left-over Nazis) and uses Philip’s ‘powers’ to identify them, and then try to drive them out of the town, often with tragic results. Lizzie becomes increasingly concerned at Natalie’s obsession, and realizes that their friendship is poisoning the rest of her life, her old friendships, her relationship with her older sister, and with Hugo, an artist who visits the town each summer. Lizzie has a great interest in art, and is drawn, both artistically and emotionally to Hugo, as well as recognizing his compassion for Philip.
Hendry makes us question our own experience and our own motives: whether we manipulate others knowingly or unknowingly – what exactly is a bully?  She also shows the dreadful consequences of mental illness, how it can masquerade as abundant enthusiasm/obsession, and how, unchecked, it can escalate unseen into extreme and unthinking acts of violence, with appalling outcomes. Lizzie may survive the ‘friendship’ but she doesn’t emerge unscarred, and we leave her rebuilding her life and rediscovering herself.

By contrast Panama Oxridge’s second volume in the Tartan of Thyme series, Thyme Running Out,  is a romp through an outrageously funny, complicated, detailed and tongue-in-cheek family saga, starring Justin Thyme, who can see into other eras by using his time machine.  Justin is an inveterate inventor, and we are treated to some improbable (but attractive) inventions, which allow him in this episode to travel back to a time when the dodo was on the point of extinction.  Justin is determined to use his manifold talents to prevent their extinction. This involves many feats of daring-do, extreme danger and plenty of complex calculations, which we are often invited to try through the detailed explanations and the numerous illustrations.

There’s an extensive appendix explaining unusual terms and ideas, and additional pages in which readers can make their own calculations, not only about the puzzles in the book but also to unravel the author’s identity.  For confident readers this is great fun, and the final page offers an intriguing cliff-hanger…