Friday, 27 February 2015

The Dreamsnatcher Blog Tour

The Dreamsnatcher
Today, I could not be more thrilled to welcome Abi Elphinstone to my blog. Abi's debut book, The Dreamsnatcher, is an amazing adventure story and was published yesterday. It is a brilliant book and I can't recommend it enough. The main character Moll has a very special friend; over to Abi to explain...

The Only Animal That Can’t Be Tamed…

Although Moll is an orphan, she has a lot of people looking out for her back in camp: Oak and Mooshie, Sid, Cinderella Bull and even Hard-Times Bob. But it’s the wildcat from the northern wilderness that perhaps looks after Moll the most. Whether she’s trespassing into the Deepwood to get her cob back or racing over the heath away from Skull, Gryff is never far from Moll’s side.

Gryff - hunting for food in the winter

It’s funny to think that when I wrote a very early draft of The Dreamsnatcher, Moll’s animal companion started out as an owl called Cobweb! He was a cute little tawny owl who could swivel his head full circle and do a shuffly backwards moonwalk, but as the story developed, I realised I wanted a wilder animal – one who could race through the forest by Moll’s side and protect her if danger lurked close. At first, I wanted that animal to be a snow leopard, one of the most secretive wild animals in the world – and one I fell in love with after reading Jackie Morris’ The Snow Leopard. But I needed my story to be believable and although I never say where The Dreamsnatcher is set, in my mind it’s in the New Forest in England – and there aren’t any snow leopards there, that’s for sure…

The Snow Leopard in Jackie Morris’ book

I grew up in Scotland and I remember glimpsing a wildcat once in a wood on the moors and my father saying how rare they were (they are currently a critically endangered species with an estimated 35 left in the wild in the UK) and how they were ‘the only animal that can’t be tamed.’ Moll is about as feral as kids come so a wildcat seemed a fitting sidekick for her – and in my head I could imagine one coming down from the ‘northern wilderness’ to the ‘southern parts of the country’ to protect Moll. It then took me ages to come up with a name for my wildcat and after weeks of thinking, I sent this email to my husband, Edo: ‘Which of these names do you think is the best name for a wildcat? Silver, Skylar, Fly, Pace, Grey, Bry. The wildcat is solitary, intelligent, fiercely protective, stealthy... And it's male.’ Edo replied: ‘None of those. I like Gryff.’ As soon as I heard it, I knew Gryff was perfect – the name even sounded like a growl he might make.

Gryff looking over to check up on Moll

It was a freezing day in January when I went to watch the wildcats in captivity at the New Forest wildlife park. But I sat shivering in the snow before their huge cages, watching them sleep, eat, stretch and slink around their territory. I listened to their greeting call and watched them leap, like ripples of silk, from the tallest branches to the ground. The wildcats’ warning growls sent shivers down my spine and watching them rip apart meat with razor-sharp claws made me understand that Gryff, although a friend to Moll, would have to be wild at heart. And after seeing all this, Gryff went from being a page on Wikipedia to a fully-drawn character.

Me holding baby Gryff (I found him in Burma!)

Gryff is large, even for a wildcat, with a muscular body and long, banded legs. His coat is thick and grey with jet-black stripes and his tail is long and bushy, ringed with bands of black and ending in a blunt tip. His eyes are large and bright yellow/green (a bit like Moll’s but with vertical black pupils) and he has white whiskers and sharp claws on all four limbs. Usually he sleeps inside hollowed trees, beneath fallen branches, inside rocky cracks or in the abandoned nests of other large animals like foxes or badgers. But because Skull’s dark magic is growing stronger, Gryff starts to sleep beneath Moll’s wagon so that he can guard her at night. Gryff hunts at dawn or dusk, patrolling forest glades and woodland areas and he can leap from the highest branches of trees to the ground unscathed when hunting other animals. He uses his camouflage and patience to stalk as close possible to his prey before reaching a full speed sprint and catching it. He crouches on alder branches overhanging the river when he’s after a duck, he waits above rabbit warrens for rabbits to emerge and he kills by grabbing the prey in his claws, piercing the neck with his fangs, then consuming almost every part of the kill. Gryff’s night vision is seven times better than our own and his hearing is active 24 hours a day, even when he’s sleeping. He can detect minute changes in air currents with his whiskers movement, he can smell meat 200 metres away and in sprints he can reach up to 30 miles per hour!

Gryff hunting in the mountains

Gryff is powerful, agile, intelligent, fearless, loyal and patient and although he is by nature a solitary animal full of secrets, he forms an extraordinary bond with Moll and she learns to read his movements…

·      Whiskers twitching: he’s heard something
·      Ears swivelling: he’s listening for something
·      Ears flattened to his head: he’s scared
·      Tail down low: he’s seen something
·      Stamping forelimbs: he’s angry

… and his noises…

·      Brrroooooo: his greeting call (like a dynamo throbbing deep in the earth)
·      Urrrrrrrrrrrr: he’s seen something that could be a threat
·      Hisssssssssss: he’s angry or feels threatened
·      PAAAAH: he’s angry (often comes with growling, spitting and snarling)
·      Noine, noine, noine: he’s content (like a purr but wilder)

If you’re interested in helping protect the critically endangered Scottish wildcat, check out the fantastic school workshops and assemblies Wild Intrigue offers:

Or get involved in buying some beautiful wildcat art to help raise money to save the wildcat:

Thursday, 12 February 2015

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen

Autumn winds bring strangers.

I do love Sarah Addison Allen’s stories. It’s the joy of reading about women full of strength and wisdom helping each other, pulling together and valuing each other even while making the usual everyday mistakes and missteps in life. And then there’s the magic – beautiful inner magic at the core of these women that a small part of me clings to no matter how rational I try to be.

First Frost sees us back with the Waverley women of Bascom, North Carolina. If you’ve not read Garden Spells, then do. It’s not actually necessary to read it before enjoying First Frost, but it’d be a great shame to miss out on it. Sisters Claire and Sydney are at the heart of the story, along with Sydney’s teenage daughter Bay. All three of them are restless, frustrated, distracted and not entirely themselves as Autumn drifts in. As they await the first frost of the season, signalling the rebirth of their curious apple tree, they struggle to make decisions and find their path.

Claire’s catering business has been put to one side for Waverley Candies, bringing her flair for knowing just the right ingredients to a much wider audience. Her new fame brings a visitor, causing her to question everything about her life. Sydney has her hands full with her newest employee, and Bay has boy trouble. They need to pull together and look after each other. Fortunately, the sisters are closer than ever now ‘the way adult siblings often are, the moment they realize that family is actually a choice.’

There’s a smaller story I enjoyed very much too, about Anne Ainsley and the stranger. Life had not been kind to her, and hers ‘was a life that accepted disappointment as inevitable.’ She’s looking for stories...sounds familiar. The writing is lovely; the descriptions of food are scrumptious and even the town itself is tinged with fairytale – ‘It looked like the world was covered in a cobbler crust of brown sugar and cinnamon.’ In my mind, there is definitely something of Stars Hollow about the place; reading Addison Allen puts me in the same place as watching Gilmore Girls (Seasons 1-4, after that I made up my own endings).

I read it (twice), I loved it, and am already impatient for more.

I read the book courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley. First Frost is available now in paperback.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Here I Am by Patti Kim and Sonia Sánchez

Here I am
Here I Am is a wordless picture book that charts one young boy’s arrival in a new country. The story is by Patti Kim, and is based on her experiences of moving from Korea to America when she was barely more than a toddler. The pictures are by Sonia Sánchez. This is the first time I’ve encountered either author.

At first the unfamiliar sights and sounds overwhelm the boy, and he struggles to feel happy in his new home.

A fortuitous accident gets him exploring the neighbourhood and he begins to see that there are good things awaiting him.

Here I Am is a very beautiful book. The illustrations convey all the boy’s emotions: his confusion, sadness, anger, curiosity, and joy. Some pages have an explosion of colour, others are muted – they all have a sketched quality that I liked very much.

There are no words, so we are able to create our own story from the pictures, which gives a lot of room for discussion and to me, promotes a very empathetic reading of the book. I’d really like to try and use this book for a story time reading; it would be satisfying, I think, to get the children to tell the story aloud from the illustrations (I am briefly cursing no longer being a children’s bookseller).

This is an interesting book in more than its subject matter. It has both a writer and an illustrator, but of course it is a wordless story. It has made me think again about an article I read yesterday about the disparity between writers and illustrators in terms of the credit given to each, by Sarah McIntyre. I expect I do know the writers of many more picture books than I do the illustrators, despite the pictures being the reason I love picture books. I wonder how different it is to illustrate something when there are no words in the text…

This is a heartfelt book; it shows the dislocation of immigrating effortlessly, and sits well with the necessary campaign for more diverse books. Good work from Curious Fox in publishing Here I Am in the UK.

The publisher was kind enough to send me copy of Here I Am for review. It is published, in paperback, on 12 February 2015.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Books. And more books.

Oh hello poor neglected blog. Let’s see if I can’t look after you a little better…

After being really quite restrained so far this year, I had a lovely little book splurge on Saturday. I’m on holiday (well, off work) this week, and all the best holidays include trips to bookshops. I hopped on the train to go to Waterstones Berkhamstead – it’s small but perfectly formed and, coincidentally, my Small Sister Person works there.

My browsing quickly resulted in an armful of books: a mixture of old and new plus a couple of picture books.

Don’t they look beautiful and tempting? I do think I probably ought to now bite the bullet and join in with #TBR20. This is the brainchild of Eva Stalker and the essence of it is about reconnecting with reading rather than the lure of owning more and more books. I am never going to want to stop buying books (and as a bookseller I don’t want anyone else to either) but the weight of unread books can become oppressive. I think I am thinking along the lines of buy as many books as I like but then read them – don’t let them sit forlorn and forgotten. I’m going to mull this over just a little more, then gather a pile of books to read before I buy anymore.

Saturday was also National Libraries Day. I don’t know what I would have done without my local library when I was little. There was no way at all that mum and dad could have kept me (and my sisters) in books then. Weekly trips to the library were an essential and loved part of my childhood. So many people on my Twitter timeline echoed my feelings; cutting library services is horribly short-sighted. We need to value libraries and librarians; they are a necessary part of the community.

I raided the Children’s and Teenage sections of Watford Library for Branford Boase Award longlist and YA Prize shortlist titles. They had a pretty good showing available on the shelves, and the rest can be got on inter-library loan.

There’s one missing from this picture – I’ve already read Broken Strings by Maria Farrer from the Branford Boase list. Even though I know it’s complete madness to attempt this with a full-time job, I am going to read the whole Branford Boase longlist again this year. Before the shortlist is announced on 4 May. Better get on that then...