Saturday, 6 April 2013

Moon Bear: Review

A few weeks ago, I had never heard of moon bears, or bear farming. My first thoughts was, who would farm bears anyway? And why? The answer is utterly abhorrent, and is the base for this powerful, horrible, brilliant novel by Gill Lewis.

Moon Bear is the story of a Tam, a boy whose family is moved, without choice, from their mountain village so the area can be cleared of forest. They are given a new home, but after his father is blown to bits by a hidden landmine, Tam is given a job in the city in the hope of making money for his family.

Tam has never seen a bear farm, and he's shocked by the way the bears are kept, living their entire lives in cages so small they can barely turn around. The cages are up on legs so that waste and urine falls directly to the floor. Tam's job is to clean up beneath the cages, avoiding the swipes of any bears strong enough to attack. Moon bears are a large black bear with a moon-like crescent of white on their chest, hence the name.

A small bear farm, where the bears spend their entire lives.
The reason they are kept like this is Bear Bile. In many parts of Asia, bile from the gall bladder of a bear is considered a powerful medicine, believed to cure anything from a cold to cancer.

Tam witnesses the procedure of the bile being removed, and how the bears are sedated, but not so much that they can't feel the pain of a needle as The Doctor tries to locate the gall bladder and syphon off the bile.

Bear bile - believed to be the cure for... everything!
Things become much more difficult for Tam when a bear cub is delivered to the farm. Tam nurses the cub back to health, and promises, against the odds, that he will find a way to get free and return himself and the bear back to the mountains.

Moon Bear doesn't hold back, without being gratuitous. The language is simple, yet colourful - a deceptively lean style that pulls the reader along. More importantly, it doesn't play to the audience for sympathy, but earns the reader's emotions through honesty, cruelty and hope.

Highly recommended.



Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Review: Irresistible by Liz Bankes

This is is right out of my comfort zone, being teen chick-lit, and normally I'd never even pick it up, but that's the advantage of meeting the author.

I first met Liz Bankes at an event for Arabesque at Foyles Bookshop, London. Liz was there as a blogger. What I didn't realise was that Liz was also in the process of nailing a job as an Editorial Assistant to an amazing indie publisher. (Catnip!)

We met up again at the FCBG conference where I discovered she is also an author. So I grabbed a copy of Irresistible, but stupidly forgot to get Liz to sign it (doh!). Actually, I came away with loads of books, so I thought I might do a few reviews. Here's the first...

Irresistible is a 1st person YA romance with a sprinkling of black humour. Mia gets a job at a right posh restaurant/club/castle type thing. The sort of place that has £1000 bottles of wine in it's cellar, secret passageways in the walls and gardens to get lost in. Posh! Now, bearing in mind that I'm totally unqualified to review chick-lit, let's put this into terms I understand. Love triangle: Mia, Dan and Jamie. Dan works in the kitchen. Simple, safe. Jamie is the son of the owner, spoilt, good looking and an utter twat.

Erm... I really enjoyed it, probably because what Liz does well is create a believable, likeable, fallible baddie. Jamie is arrogant, controlling and destructive. At first, he comes across as all-powerful and completely condescending, but bit by bit, the power struggle shows signs of shifting and that he might possibly develop some level of respect for another human being, to the point where Mia has him eating out of her thighs hands. Actually, that joke isn't far fetched. I found it very interesting to see how far YA chick-lit goes. At the start, we are given a hint that Jamie can give orgasms just by kissing. At some point, the author had to deliver on that one. Ding dong!

Anyway, moving on... there is a lot of humour in this book - well timed and well delivered, but not enough to make it a comic novel. After speaking to Liz in person, I get the feeling that she's got a lot more to offer in this vein, so if laugh-out-loud, embarrassing, gut churning rom-com is your thing, then Liz Bankes is an author to be watched.



FCBG Conference 2013

The Federation of Children's Book Groups is a national organisation made up of volunteer parents, teachers and librarians who love children's books so much, they actively promote and introduce them to children in their local areas. Each year they have a conference. This year, I was lucky enough to be invited along.

Culford School - big, old, and probably haunted.

I was gobsmacked really, considering other writers included Melvin Burgess, Eoin Colfer, Michelle Paver and Marcus Sedgewick. Well, okay - they were on the main stage and my seminar was on the second floor in a haunted classroom, but it was still cool to be in the same place.

A snow storm battered the country this weekend, which made the drive up to the school postcard perfect. I even saw little deer-things. Like dogs on long legs, so I think they were deer, or deerlets, or something.

The driveway leading to Culford School

Still on the driveway to Culford School, passing a church.

The talks were fantastic. Gill Lewis even gave us a home-made animation, Sally Nichols sold the Black Death as an alternative to dystopian fiction and Melvin Burgess debunked the myth that YA novels are all negative, misery and issues.

Rachel Ward, Graham Marks and Melvin Burgess

I loved Emma Chichester Clark's amazing PlumDog blog (here's a link) which made me want to go out and get a dog (I really hope my kids aren't reading this). Liz Pichon was equally brilliant. The result of these two talks got me to buy a few pencils, come home and doodle - and thanks to a breakfast conversation with Pip from Bounce, I know exactly what I'm going to draw!

My own seminar went well. It covered time management, family stories, warts, blood splatters, acoustic guitar and the reason I'll never be a rock star.

To end this post, here's a photo of the toilet I found when I got lost. It was installed in the school back in 1905 to get ready for a Royal Visit and has since been referred to as the King's Toilet.

The King's Toilet - a 100 year old bog!

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Magic of Facebook

When I was 10 or 11 years old, me and my best friend decided it would be a good idea to get well and truly lost. We walked for miles and ended up a wooded area on the far side of the West Park in South Shields (in reality, it wasn't that far, but in the days before mobile phones and having any real idea where we were, it was far enough). This is the only photo I've got of us at that age.

Me and Wardy in our first year at Harton Comp


We were mucking about in those trees, sliding down the mud slopes and climbing on the rocks down the bottom part of the bank when my friend just disappeared. I could hear him laughing, but no matter where I looked, I couldn't find him. Eventually, he lifted up a small curtain of ivy that was hanging over a rock. He'd been hiding in the space behind.

His name is Layton Ward - Wardy to me, back then - and I haven't seen him for over twenty years. The story of what he did that day stuck with me and ended up inspiring a good chunk of Clash. So much so, that I wrote about it in the Author's Note at the end of the book, not really knowing whether he'd ever see it.

I'm dead chuffed to say that now he has. He found me through Facebook, heard about the book and ordered it online. He also posted that photo of us in our first year at Comp - age 11!

Computers are ace!

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Playstation, Scooters and Short Novels. Fight!!!

So the new Playstation has been announced, and that affects YA authors how..? Well, if you don’t know your audience, how do you expect to write for them? The PS4 is the first of the new generation consoles, machines with so much power the games look more like interactive movies. But is this really what modern kids are after?

Killzone: Shadow Fall on the PS4
Back in September, I appeared on Litopia After Dark with internet legend Frank Edward Nora. Frank is a modern day Samuel Pepys, recording his observations of humanity on thousands of podcast diaries. He is convinced that as technology advances, we’re going to be lost in a virtual work, unable to separate reality from the digital universe, and it looks like the PS4 marks the next stage of that development.

Scary stuff if you buy into it. But I don't, and here's why.

Personally, I am quite excited about the PS4, possibly because I’ve followed the rise of video games since the PONG of the seventies. I spent my youth spent playing arcade games, followed the development of early computers from the ZX81 to Atari ST and eventually found myself working as an artist on 3D virtual reality games.


But my kids are more interested in iPods and those mini app games, so much so that we have an XBOX 360 and widescreen HDTV gathering dust while they move an iPod left and right to roll a ball about the screen - spending chunks of spare time on games that have the most basic of 2D graphics. A Facetime call comes in, then suddenly it’s "helmets on" and they're all off to the skatepark with stunt scooters. In between stunts, they’re pulling out iPods and iPhones, filming each other, (or “doing edits”), updating Facebook and streaming video. They’re not lost in a virtual world at all; they’re merging modern technology with their fun, exciting, busy lives.

Jack, doing a flying tail-whip (whatever that is)
And that’s the problem. Teen lives are busy as hell and console games are far too demanding. The average console game costs around £50 new and takes a good 60 hours to play through. You can’t simply shove it in and shoot stuff, you have to go through the standard tutorial level, then build up skills and weapons as you go. App-games, on the other hand, are cheap (many free) and so simple, you just need to see a few seconds and you know exactly what to do. Take Temple Run or Fruit Ninja. Both free, both simple, free and bags of fun. Turn on, play. Friend calls. Grab your skooter, a can of coke and voooooom, you’re off, with the game in your back pocket.

That’s what YA authors have to compete with, not the PS4.

So, is there a literary equivalent? If certain games are getting simpler in order to attract attention, can the same be done with the novel?

When I was a teen, I was a terrible reader. I could never finish a full novel. But then the Fighting Fantasy series came along and I was hooked. It was reading, and a game, all in one. But best of all, each time I read, it felt like I’d reached the end of the story.

I’m not suggesting these make a return, but I would like to see more short novels for teenagers, rather than doorstops that seem to be the current trend. Books like The Hunger Games, Northern Lights, Gone or The Enemy would have scared me shitless when I was a teen, just by their sheer length, even though the content would have been spot on for my tastes. That’s probably why, back then, I read more James Herbert than Stephen King.

The bottom line is that teens have so many easily accessible, bite-sized bits of fun screaming for their attention that they don’t have time for long games, let alone novels. The publisher that realises this, and captures the attention of the iPod crowd is going to make a lot of money. Maybe it’ll be another kind of adventure book, maybe it will be compact novellas or a modern take on chapbooks. I don’t know, but I’ve got a hunch that a new wave of short, exciting and accessible titles could be one way to grab this young, exciting, and very busy audience.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Caught In A Mosh

I went to my first rock concert when I was 14 years old. I saw Motorhead at Newcastle City Hall. A few months back, I noticed they were not only still touring, but coming back to the City Hall, so I decided to look for tickets. The only seat available was the exact one I had 28 years ago, up on the balcony - D13. Too weird - I had to buy it!

But it gets better. The support act were going to be mega-thrash gods, Anthrax. A band I used to be crazy about in my teens. Oh, and it gets even betterer - the original singer, Joey Belladonna, is back with the band and they've got a new album out. So I went out and bought me first CD for god-knows how many years. Worship Music is just incredible. I've listened to it pretty much non-stop.

As for the gig itself, it was full of ageing rockers, but there were a few young faces there, and a handful of kids too, which was great to see. The biggest difference was the atmosphere. When I last saw Anthrax, we were all going mental, jumping and moshing all over the place. But this time, that was pretty much the first two rows only. Everyone else was standing in their correct place, holding up iPhones.

Anthrax were the better band. Joey still sounds amazing, but Motorhead were beyond loud and into the category of sheer pain. Very laid back and cool, no matter how fast they played. Here's a few pics.
Anthrax
Scott Ian - Anthrax
Lemmy - Motorhead
Motorhead
Phil Campbell - Motorhead
Lemmy - Motorhead

Sunday, 30 September 2012

A Blog About Matthew

At the back of Arabesque, there’s a brief mention of Matthew and the amount of care he needs. I’d thought I’d do a quick blog about our life at the moment, not just for a whine and a moan, but because a blog is something to look back on. A good example is my post from 2009: Fun With a Wheelbarrow which is such a silly memory of carting Matthew round the streets in a wheelbarrow and it always makes me laugh. It was a fun day, and something to look back on with nostalgia. But sometimes it's important to look back on the bad times too, which is the real reason I'm writing this entry.

Me and Matthew, at Wookey Hole during the summer.
Things are particularly tough at the moment, for Matthew in particular, and then the rest of us. Three weeks ago, Matthew had major surgery: a femoral osteotomy in both legs, which involved the bones of both legs being cut, rotated and re-fixed. It was a five hour op, and luckily, both legs were done in the same op so he doesn't need to go back.

bed-time meds
He had a week’s recovery in hospital, and then he came home on six weeks bed rest. We’ve got his bed in our front room because it just wouldn’t be fair to confine him to his bedroom – apart from the fact that he doesn’t fully understand what’s going on. As far as he's concerned, he went to sleep in hospital, and woke up with lots of discomfort and pain. We've got to keep on top of this as best we can because Matthew can't tell us what he needs. As you can see in the photo, his night-time meds are a bit daunting. There's actually one missing.

Day to day, he needs lots of moving and cleaning and changing, and all of that causes him pain and discomfort. But nights are something else. We have medicines that help him relax and sleep, but for some reason, they aren’t doing their usual job. Perhaps it's the pain he's in, perhaps it's stress and having had such a big change to his usual routine. 

Matthew and brother, Jack
Usually, on an evening, Matthew sits next to Paula, getting a cuddle while we watch TV. He can't have that at the moment and we can see how much this distresses him. But whatever the reason, we’ve had nights when he’s been awake, moaning and unhappy, all night long. And we've had nights where he's settled and slept until 2am, then woken up and moaned from then on.

So me and my wife are pretty zonked at the moment. It's also affecting his brothers, because if we're tired, they feel it, and sometimes when we're up through the night, they get disturbed too. 

During the week, I go out to work and Paula is confined to home. When I get home, I try to help out with Matthew. So ultimately, there's not a lot of writing getting done just now. But that's okay, because in a few weeks things will be back to normal. And when that happens, and I'm sat at this laptop wondering whether to waste time on Facebook, I can read back through this blog and get back on track, in the hope that one day, I’ll make enough money to be able to write full time...

... in a massive bungalow, with a boiler that works, a hydro-therapy pool for Matthew and a kitchen so big, you can park a car in it.